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(en) Britain, The Anarchist Federation (AFED), RESISTANCE #157 - Made in China: Gender and Resistance in the ‘Factory of the World’

Date Wed, 05 Nov 2014 13:19:44 +0200

In May of this year, 50,000 workers went on strike in the Taiwanese-owned Yue Yen shoe factory in Dongguan. Dongguan is part of the Pearl River Delta (PRD), a major industrial centre for export factories near Hong Kong. This may be one of the biggest strikes in the PRD so far - but it is only the tip of the iceberg. ---- Over the past 20 years there have been thousands of actions taken by the migrant workers, who make up the main body of the workforce in the PRD. Women make up the majority of this workforce and, though reports of the strikes are gender-neutral and talk only about ‘workers’, will certainly make up the majority of strikers. It's impossible to discuss the new Chinese working class without considering the different situations in which men and women find themselves, and the affect this has on their role in strikes and other acts of resistance.

Migrant workers have been coming to the PRD since the early 1990s, when the Chinese government opened China up to market forces and encouraged foreign investment. For a variety of reasons, most of these migrants are women, especially on the assembly lines. Bosses think that young women are more ‘docile’ and able to put up with the tedium of the work and the patriarchal family system means that girls have no future in rural areas, as the son generally inherits the family farm. As a result many young women are eager to leave the countryside for a new life in the city. As one young woman said: ‘There is nothing to do at home, so I went out’.


The wages and conditions for many young women are horrendous. One woman’s story (Chang: 2010) gives an idea of what it was like. Min arrived in Dongguan in the mid-1990s. Like many others, she had a relative already living there who helped her begin the job hunt. It wasn't difficult to find a job. She started work for an electronics firm, living in a dirty, smelly dormitory with 12 other girls she didn't know. Shifts lasted 13 hours with a couple of breaks, though she often worked weeks without a single break. Min earned about 50 dollars a month. She had thought it would be fun working on an assembly line, chatting and laughing with the other women. But she soon learned this was not the case: talking on the job was forbidden.

What happened next in Min’s story gives some indication of the acts of resistance that may have led to the big strikes we are seeing in China today. Min had difficulty coping with the tedium of the assembly line and would often talk and take toilet breaks. One day, when she was told off, she walked off the line in protest. Completely unexpectedly, the boss started being nice to her and promised that if she stayed she would get her back wages and hinted at a promotion. However Min replied: ‘Your factory is not worth wasting my youth on’ and said she would stay only 6 more months and expected all the pay she was owed. She left 6 months later, straight into another job as a low level clerk.

These acts of resistance have been noted by a number of writers who have spent time with the ‘dagonmei’, or ‘women working for the boss’. Despite the factory system of control and domination, they have managed to find ways to resist and as in Min’s case, many are willing to speak out and leave. Clearly, the women have not turned out to be as ‘docile’ and easily controlled as the bosses had hoped! There is a high staff turnover, with many women going back to their villages to get married. This labour shortage has helped the workers to gain some bargaining power. Once workers win one small victory, it will hopefully build their confidence, leading to bigger and bigger actions.

It is hard to gain a complete picture of the role of women in the strikes. Women will certainly constitute a major part of the strikers as they are the assembly line workers. A strike at a Honda factory in Zhongshan in 2010 where women made up the majority of the workforce won a significant victory with pay concessions as well as winning the right to choose their own representatives for collective bargaining rather than having to rely on the official trade union. According to the China Labour Bulletin, the strikes in 2013 occurred in factories with a largely female workforce. Women were particularly active in communicating information about the strikes and spreading the word by internet and mobile phone. However, their actual role during the strikes remains unclear.

The recent strike at the Yue Yen factory indicates that whilst women may make up the majority of strikers, the leaders are still men. In fact, according to one report on Reuters (Ruwitch 2014) it was the managers who started the strike. They were mainly concerned that the company had not been keeping up on its social insurance contributions. It was more senior workers, most likely to be all men, who were in a position to be concerned about this issue.

Women, therefore, have two struggles on their hands. Not only are they experiencing the worst of the conditions and wages, they also may be sidelined by male workers (who are often more senior, skilled and better paid) in the struggles themselves. It is difficult to become a leader in these strikes in a patriarchal society.

The women often do not remain in urban areas long enough to become more embedded in a social movement because they are pressurized by their parents and by society as a whole to return to the village and marry. Increasingly, however, once women have been to the urban areas and experienced the relative freedom that exists there, they are resisting the pressure to return. Instead, they find ways to escape the assembly line, taking courses and involving themselves in other projects. Despite this they may not have the options available to men, and one of their escape options may be into prostitution.

It is important that as anarcha-feminists, we seek to understand the complexity of what is going on. We cannot simply see everyone as ‘workers’ but need to actively consider the role gender plays. It is clear that all workers of all sexes are determined to fight their exploitation but women have their own battles to fight – to ensure they play an equal role in all struggles.

References: Ruwitch (2014) In China, managers are the new labour activists, Link: http://uk.reuters.com/article/2014/06/01/uk-china-labor-strikes-idUKKBN0EC10720140601

Chang (2010) Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China, Spiegel & Grau
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