Beyond Empowerment or Consent: Labor Law, Legal Action NGOs and Workers' Negative Capabilities

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 6:30 PM
Room: Booth 41
Distributed Paper
Regina ENJUTO MARTINEZ , International Development, London School Economics & Political Science, London, United Kingdom
Since the mid 1990s, accompanying the development of legal frameworks that regulate the Chinese labor regime, there has been the upsurge of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that pursue the protection and promotion of peasant-workers’ (nongmingong) rights. These labor-legal action NGOs play a multifaceted role: reproducing and maintaining capitalist arrangements and structures embedded in the labor laws; diffusing the legal discourse; and, providing a support structure for workers’ legal actions when experiencing an industrial dispute.

The purpose of this paper is to examine the interplay between labor laws, legal action NGOs and workers’ actions. It illustrates how structural conditions reach workers through a double channel - the legal system and legal action NGOs-. Unsurprisingly, the convention is that both the simple existence of labor laws and workers’ contact with NGOs have an empowering effect on workers as they have been entitled with rights, they acquire legal knowledge, raise their rights awareness and are enabled to pursue legal action. The critique or counter-argument would sustain that this legal structure obtains workers’ consent to the capitalist labor regime and contains their actions within the borders of legality. 

However, in line with Roberto Unger’s (2004) false necessity theory, there are subtle spaces for peasant-workers’ negative capabilities or self-empowerment and action both within and outside the structural constraints posed by the law and legal action NGOs. This paper will illustrate through ethnographic material gathered during fieldwork in three NGOs in China throughout 2012 and 2013 that it is in fact because of workers’ apprehension of these structural constraints and their contact with legal action NGOs that many of their negative capabilities are developed, stimulating their actions to go beyond the predetermined by law.