Academic journal article China Perspectives

Legal Activism or Class Action? the Political Economy of the "No Boss" and "No Labour Relationship" in China's Construction Industry

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Legal Activism or Class Action? the Political Economy of the "No Boss" and "No Labour Relationship" in China's Construction Industry

Article excerpt

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A global China is made spatially possible by Chinese construction workers, comprised of more than 40 million peasant workers hailing from all parts of China's countryside. Recent years have seen increasing numbers of individual and collective actions among construction workers pursuing delayed wages or demanding compensation for injury or death. These actions include legal litigation, such as suing subcontractors or companies, as well as collective actions such as property damage, phys- ical assault, and even suicidal behaviour. Could these legal and collective actions be understood as class actions, especially when framed by a dis- course of human and legal rights? What is the relationship between legal action (supposedly a realm of civil society) and collective resistance (sup- posedly an area of class conflict driven by production relations)? In the area of labour consciousness, how could workers make sense of their ac- tions, both legal and/or collective, and negotiate with a hegemonic dis- course? Do they transform legal action into class action at a particular juncture and thereby transgress the construed hegemonic language of legal rights? Addressing these questions requires an understanding of the political economy of the construction industry that shapes the politics of labour resistance among migrant construction workers. The first part of this paper discusses changes in the political economy of the construction industry and the rise of the labour subcontracting system that results in a "double absence" - the absence of a boss and management and of a cap- ital-labour relationship in the Reform period. The second part focuses on how this "double absence" generates a variety of legal and collective ac- tions among construction workers, and how the workers take and under- stand their actions.

The rapid development of the construction industry and accompanying structural changes has led to the rebirth of a highly exploitative labour subcontracting system that was abandoned during the socialist period. (1) This labour system embodies two processes: the rapid commodificationof labour through non-industrial social relations organised by a quasi-labour market in rural villages; and the subsumption of labour in the production process of the construction sector in the urban areas. These two processes have shaped a specific labour subcontracting system in China under re- form, resulting in a perpetual process of wage arrears and the struggle of construction workers to pursue delayed wages in various ways, usually in- volving violent collective action. (2)

China's construction industry has experienced astonishing growth in the world market in recent years.(3) By 2007, the Chinese construction industry was consuming half of the world's concrete and a third of its steel for building its global cities, and was employing more than 40 million workers, most of them peasant-workers from all parts of the country. About 30 per- cent of all migrant workers from the countryside work in the construction industry. (4) In order to transform Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou into China's core global cities and speed up the process of urbanisation, China has invested about $376 billion in construction each year since the Tenth Five Year Plan (2001-2005), making construction the country's fourth largest industry. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the construction industry had become a strategic industry accounting for approximately 6.6 percent of China's GDP. By the end of 2007, the industry's total income had risen by 25.9 percent to RMB 5.10 trillion, and total output value reached RMB 2.27 trillion in the first half of 2008. (5)

This study draws on research conducted in seven cities - Beijing, Shenyang, Chengdu, Guiyang, Wuhan, Changsha, and Guangzhou - in 2008 and 2009. More than 1,500 supervisors and workers were interviewed on 12 construction sites in these seven cities. …

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