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Agents of social change or marginalised victims? Female rural-urban migrant workers in contemporary China

Hausarbeit 2018 15 Seiten

Orientalistik / Sinologie - Chinesisch / China

Leseprobe

Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. Context: Rural-urban migrant workers in contemporary China
2.1. The hukou (household registration) system
2.2.1 Reform and the lack thereof
2.2. China’s rapid economic transition
2.3. Gender segregation of the Chinese labour market

3. Female rural-urban migrant workers in China: Between marginalisation and independence
3.1. Marginalised victims or agents of social change? Public discourse and narrated reality.
3.2. Challenges of female rural-urban migrant workers
3.3. The effects of migration on female rural-urban migrant workers

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

6. Eidesstattliche Erklärung

Abstract:

China’s rapid transition to a market-oriented economy has led to a mass migration from the countryside to the cities. Chinese rural-urban migrant workers “constitute the largest ever labor force in human history” (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:vii). Approximately a third of them are female (Shi 2008:8). Even though migration is a gendered phenomenon (He; Gober 2003:1) and gender cannot be treated as a mere variable of many, the experiences of Chinese women as migrant workers are underrepresented. Many are faced with different challenges than men, such as sexual exploitation, discrimination and abuse (Gaetano; Jacka 2004:3). And even though migration can help women to gain autonomy and independence through their increased social, economic and physical mobility, the gender-specific dynamics of migration can also force women into contexts of suppression and dependence. One of the central questions in the debate surrounding gender and migration in China is, whether Chinese female rural-urban migrant workers should be seen as marginalised victims or rather as agents of social change. However all too often the debate remains caught up in a rigid dichotomy, neglecting the complex interwoven net of identity, economic (in)dependence and social networks these women live and work in. I argue that while there is ground for either one of these characterisations of Chinese female migrant workers – as victims as well as agents of social change – this binary approach is not beneficial to a fruitful discussion. Rather than defending one of these viewpoints, the debate should focus more on acknowledging the complex diversity of this issue as well as on eliminating current research deficits through further qualitative and quantitative analysis and fieldwork .

1. Introduction

Chinese rural-urban migrant workers “constitute the largest ever labor force in human history” (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:vii). The exact number of rural-urban migrants is not known1, but estimations go as far as 300 million and the number is constantly growing (Majid 2015:8). Current research can’t keep up with this topic and the lack of reliable data makes a comprehensive analysis of the situation of migrant workers in contemporary China even more challenging. Approximately a third of the Chinese rural-urban migrant workers are female (Shi 2008:8): Migration is a gendered phenomenon (He; Gober 2003:1). However many studies on migration don’t differentiate between the experiences of men and women or examine how migration affects gender roles, relations and the division of labour (Fan 2000:423). Women’s experiences as migrant workers are underrepresented. Many are faced with different challenges than men, such as sexual exploitation, discrimination and abuse (Gaetano; Jacka 2004:3). And even though migration can help women to gain autonomy and independence through their increased social, economic and physical mobility, the gender-specific dynamics of migration can also force women into contexts of suppression and dependence. Often studies only focus on very narrow aspects of the topic without situating it in a wider context. Only more recently, a few studies have emerged which take a different approach. For example Gaetano and Jacka (2004), Jacka (2006) or Ngai (2006) base their analysis of the situation of Chinese female migrant workers on extensive fieldwork, with the aim to give these underrepresented women a voice.

In the following I will firstly provide context for the phenomenon of rural-urban migrant workers by examining its Chinese characteristics, such as the hukou (hùkǒu户口) system, China’s rapid economic development and the segregation of the labour market. Then I will go on to identify the most central challenges female migrant workers are facing. By mainly drawing on the qualitative fieldwork-studies available, I will endeavour to critically discuss one of the central questions in the debate surrounding gender and migration in China: Whether Chinese female rural-urban migrant workers should be seen as marginalised victims or rather as agents of social change. All too often the debate remains caught up in a rigid dichotomy, neglecting the complex interwoven net of identity, economic (in)dependence and social networks these women live and work in. I argue that while there is ground for either one of these characterisations of Chinese female migrant workers – as victims as well as agents of social change – this binary approach is not beneficial to a fruitful discussion. Rather than defending one of these viewpoints, the debate should focus more on acknowledging the complex diversity of this issue as well as on eliminating current research deficits through further qualitative and quantitative analysis and fieldwork.

Finally I will give a brief outlook on what would actually have to change in order to improve the living situations of these millions of women (and men) – mainly comprehensive policy reforms on the part of the Chinese government.

2. Context: Rural-urban migrant workers in contemporary China

In Chinese migrant workers are most commonly referred to as liúdòng rénkǒu 流动人口 (“floating population“), míngōngcháo民工潮 (“tide of peasant workers”), mángliú盲流 (“blind drifters”), or pejoratively even as dīduān rénkǒu 低端人口 (“low-end population”). Most of them live in the suburbs of China’s mega-cities and because of their illegal residence status the majority is limited to jobs in the so called “3-D”-category (“dangerous, dirty and demeaning”) (Chan 2010:359).

2.1. The hukou(household registration) system

For about three decades, massive rural-urban migration has been occurring in China, with most migrant workers moving to the cities temporarily to work in the informal sector. Both the emergence of rural-urban migrants and their social integration relate strongly to the hukou system, China’s system of household registration. A citizen’s hukou status is determined by the place of hukou, based on the person’s regular residence and the status of hukou, dividing the population into agricultural hukou and non-agricultural hukou. One’s hukou status is inherited and conversion remains under tight government control. This system is “still functioning as something akin to a passport for internal migration” (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:2). Chan describes it as the “foundation of China’s divisive dualistic socioeconomic structure and the country’s two classes of citizenship” (Chan 2010:357). It has effectively segregated the rural and urban population, “initially in geographical, but more fundamentally in social, economic and political terms” (ibid.). The hukou system serves as a tool of social control for the rural population and its “access to state-provided goods, welfare and entitlements” (Chan 2010:358). Because of their illegal residence status people with agricultural hukou living in cities do not have access to urban social services, including health care, child care or education. (See for the whole paragraph: Chan 2010:357-360; Chan; Li 1999:841-848; Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:1-4).

2.2.1 Reform and the lack thereof

In the last two decades there have been two bigger attempts to reform and improve the hukou system, but its central features remain basically unchanged (Chan 2010:361; Chan; Zhang 1999:841-843; Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:3). The first reform in the mid-1990s centered on giving more decision-power to local governments, so that they could give out local urban hukou, mostly benefitting the rich and college-educated. The second reform focused on making the system more “humane” by giving urban hukou to the children or elderly parents of migrants who had already obtained that status. (Chan 2010:361f.).

2.2. China’s rapid economic transition

The transition of the People’s Republic to a market-oriented economy has occurred within only a few decades. China becoming a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001 marked the country’s further integration into the global economy. This also increased the economy’s need to fill unwanted, low-paid positions, a central factor for the occurrence of China’s massive rural-urban migration. These men and women who moved from the countryside to the cities make up the major part of China’s manufacturing labour and service industries (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:3). They are “the backbone of the export industry” (Chan 2010:359) and the “the lifeblood of China’s economic boom” (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:3) who built the brand “made in China”.

Denying migrant workers local urban hukou can be seen as a strategic economic step which “has created a large, easily exploitable, highly mobile, and flexible industrial workforce for China's export economy.” (Chan 2010:359). This strategy of dramatically increasing rural productivity by “creating a massive pool of super-low-cost rural labor tied to land of very little market value” (Chan 2010:358) has also been implemented by the successful Asian tiger economies (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan), but they, in contrast, “never sought to formally control internal migration” (ibid.)

2.3. Gender segregation of the Chinese labour market

China’s rapid economic transition has also ”revived a more ‘traditional’ gender division of roles in households, and the labour market” (Dasgupta; Matsumoto; Xia 2015:8). This gender division, particularly in peasant households, is further cemented by the hukou system, which also directly controls “where marriage migration can take place” (Fan 2000:424). Women have limited educational opportunities and social benefits and a trend can be observed that young women participate less in the work force since the 1990s (Dasgupta; Matsumoto; Xia 2015:4-8).

Rural women make up the largest group of female workers in China, but they are also the group which has been most ignored and neglected during the reform era. This is also clearly indicated by suicide rates in China which are three times the global average with most suicides being committed by young rural women (Gaetano; Jacka 2004:2; Jacka 2006:7).

The gender segregation of the Chinese labour market is also mirrored in the existing gender pay gap which is continuously widening (Shi 2008:16). There also exists a significant pay gap between male and female rural-urban migrant workers: According to a study by Fan, female migrant workers on average earn 55,3 per cent the salary of male migrant workers (Jacka 2006:109f.). A report of the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation identified four main factors which influence gender segregation in the Chinese labour market: access to work (gender discrimination at the workplace and in recruitment), care work (mostly done by women and often unpaid), social security (including medical insurance, unemployment benefits, maternity benefits and pension) and the retirement age (at 60 for men and 55 for women) (Dasgupta; Matsumoto; Xia 2015:20-27).

Some sectors of the economy are even dominated by rural-urban migrant women, including domestic service, prostitution, sanitation, textiles and the toy and electronic industries (Jacka 2006:7). The section of employment varies throughout China, while for example in Beijing a large proportion of rural-urban migrant women work in domestic service, in Hangzhou more work in catering or in cotton or silk factories (Jacka 2006:98).

3. Female rural-urban migrant workers in China: Between marginalisation and independence

3.1. Marginalised victims or agents of social change? Public discourse and narrated reality

There are valid arguments for both viewing female rural-urban migrant workers, who are also referred to and refer to themselves as dǎgōngmèi 打工妹 (“working sisters”), as marginalised victims as well as agents of social change2. As has already been established, their autonomy, which they achieved by out-migration, is “threatened by structural constraints, including the deep-rooted patriarchal traditions, the hukou system (…), and the increasing gender segregation of the labour market” (Fan 2000:445).

Many studies are conducted without giving sufficient space to the actual voices of the women who are being discussed. They focus on very narrow aspects of the topic, which can nevertheless be relevant to the overall subject as well, but should be situated in a wider context and the research be driven by the actual needs and narratives of migrant women. This does not only apply to academia alone, of course. In the greater public debate in China female migrant workers are mainly characterised as “voiceless and passive” (Sun 2004:116). In media migrant women are subject to a “voyeuristic gaze of the urban reader as well as a controlling gaze of the state” (Sun 2004:117). The “genre of the ‘female victim story’ has burgeoned in Chinese media” (Jacka 2006:54), where “the victim is almost always portrayed as naïve and ignorant which further reinforces an urban/rural divide” (Jacka 2006:55). The roles which the women depicted in the news stories take on, can vary: “She is sometimes a country girl who becomes a baomu (maid), a xiaojie (an euphemistic term for prostitute), or the victim of abduction and human trafficking” (Wan 2004:116).

As a common pattern though, rural women are treated “as symbols of moral and social inferiority” (Gaetano 2004:7) in China’s public discourses. That status as marginalised victims is a singular, reductionist depiction of their actual lives. “Women’s migration in China may at one time have been a signal of extreme poverty or desperation, but this is no longer the case.” (Lou; Zheng; Connelly; Roberts 2004:239). Even though cash income is still the central motive for migration in most cases, often the money is to be earned for very specific purposes which could significantly improve a woman’s status and quality of life. This could for example mean a new home, a bridal dowry or education expenses for younger siblings (Lou; Zheng; Connelly; Roberts 2004:239). Migration is now seen “as a rite of passage by some young women, or at least a great adventure.” (Lou; Zheng; Connelly; Roberts 2004:239). Even “marriage does not end migration for women” (Lou; Zheng; Connelly; Roberts 2004:239), women who have already migrated single often migrate again after marrying, sometimes with their husband, but not necessarily. “Their stories of migration make it clear that these rural migrants are not the docile dagongmei often depicted. They are active players in their own experiences, from finding employment to arguing with bosses over pay to participating in worker strikes.” (Lou; Zheng; Connelly; Roberts 2004:240)

3.2. Challenges of female rural-urban migrant workers

In the following I will briefly address the most central challenges faced by female rural-urban migrant workers in China. Many of these challenges naturally also apply to male migrant workers. One could undoubtedly expand on either one of these aspects for whole academic papers and independent fieldwork. But in order to situate the question of whether female rural-urban migrant workers should rather be seen as victims or agents of social change, it is important to at least have an overview of their concrete living and working conditions.

A central challenge for practically all rural-urban migrant workers is their low income and income inequality. In 2002 the average monthly wage of migrant workers was 100 US Dollars, which is 58 per cent of an urban worker’s average wage (Shi 2008:12), that is in addition to the persisting gender pay gap between male and female migrant workers which has already been mentioned above. Migrant workers are also faced with a substantial income and job insecurity. Because of their illegitimate residence status they rarely have written contracts with their employers which means they could lose their job any time and at the same time cannot rely on legal counsel for support. Often they have to work overtime, one third of migrant workers work 9 to 10 hours a day, almost one quarter 11 to 12 hours and 12 per cent 13 or more hours per day. This means that more than two thirds of migrant workers have working hours exceeding the legal maximum working time of 8 hours per day by far (Shi 2008:14-15). When it comes to housing conditions, the majority of migrant workers live in dormitories provided by their employers in factories or at construction sites. Often these dormitories are overcrowded and lack basic furniture, sanitation facilities, heating and air-conditioning.

[...]


1 This is due to difficulties in data gathering, since there is no authoritative national survey on the number of migrant workers, as well as a lack of consensus concerning the definition of a migrant worker (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:1). For the following rural-urban migrants will be defined as “people who participate in non-agricultural production activities in the cities, but still have agricultural hukou” (Yue; Li; Feldman 2016:8).

2 Social change is defined here as „the significant alteration of social structure and cultural patterns through time. Social structure refers to persistent networks of social relationships where interaction between people or groups has become routine and repetitive.” (Leicht 2013).

Details

Seiten
15
Jahr
2018
ISBN (eBook)
9783346063960
ISBN (Buch)
9783346063977
Sprache
Englisch
Katalognummer
v505933
Institution / Hochschule
Ruprecht-Karls-Universität Heidelberg – Institut für Sinologie
Note
1,7
Schlagworte
China Gender Migrant worker hukou rural-urban migration

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Titel: Agents of social change or marginalised victims? Female rural-urban migrant workers in contemporary China