Precariousness in the Chinese High-Growth Society: The Case of Migrant Workers in the Pearl River Delta

Tuesday, 12 July 2016
Location: Hörsaal 48 (Main Building)
Distributed Paper
Stefan SCHMALZ, Friedrich Schiller-University, Germany
Brandon SOMMER, University of Guelph, Canada
Precariousness is used increasingly by scholars to describe an insecure future, little or no access to social benefits and a general disconnection from steady employment. However, as the concept mainly refers to the deregulation of employment in developed countries since the 1980s, it remains unclear whether precariousness is a suitable concept to grasp the social reality of the Global South. In this paper, we refer to a relational concept of precariousness (Pierre Bourdieu, Robert Castel and Klaus Dörre) in order to understand precarity for migrant workers in Guangdong province, China. For this purpose, we analyze 31 in-depth interviews with migrant workers in two cities in the Pearl River Delta, Shunde and Dongguan. We observe two main factors for migrant workers’ subjective sensation of precariousness: First, as social ties to the rural countryside get weaker and rural subsistence work becomes less attractive, social security payments becomes increasingly important for migrant workers’ livelihoods. Second, age influences migrant workers’ subjective perspective on employment. Due to a growing labor shortage in China’s coastal regions, young workers tend to have a high market-place bargaining power and, thus, do not fear unemployment. However, older workers continue to fear dismissal, as the current industrial transformation has resulted in factory downsizing and closures which makes finding new jobs for older workers difficult. Drawing upon these observations, we develop a zone model of precarity with three groups of migrant workers (the secure, the struggling and the precarious), older workers without pension are the major component of the precarious group. We conclude that precariousness becomes a new driver of labor conflict (e.g. Yue Yuen strike 2014) and due to China’s shrinking GDP-growth, the zone of precariousness may continue to grow.