2005/05/19

China's reserve army of labor

There's been a call from my loyal readers for some outrages from China, so here's the best one I can think of offhand.

Chinese cities are overrun with private guards. Guards in parking lots, guards at movie theaters, guards at the post office, guards in front of every housing community (unlike in the USA, a lot of Chinese cities' residential areas are all set up sort of like gated communities, so they're gated off and their access roads aren't thru streets). Most of these guards don't really do much of anything, since you can freely walk into most of these areas without them stopping you. Not that you'd be that intimidated in the first place - most of the guards look like they're 16 or 17. China is one of the safest places in the world (as long as you play by the rules), so I'm also not entirely sure why people feel the need for guards.

But the outrage isn't that there are guards, but the work conditions of the guards themselves. My school and the associated dorm/hotel has its own set of guards. All the guards are migrants from the countryside. They work 12 hours every day, 7 days a week (2 days off a month). They get paid 400 yuan a month, roughly $50, ie about 10 cents/hour. For comparison, a foreigner with no teaching skills (eg, me) can make the same amount of money teaching English for 4 hours that they make working 350 hours.

To be fair, the guards are given housing and food by the hotel. It's almost insultingly inadequate food and housing, but still an important benefit since they can save most of their income. But even this is compromised since the hotel uses it to regulate their personal lives. They have to sign out and sign in when they want to go anywhere, and apparently aren't allowed to consort with students off the premises (weird).

They've been promised a lighter workload (8 hours/day, same pay) as soon as more guards can be hired. But last month after a couple new guards were hired, a couple other ones were promptly fired, restoring the old 12 hour days.

So there you go. And that's just the tip of the iceberg, since migrant laborers work in similar conditions in every shit job in the cities, from construction to waiting tables to retail. Migrant workers aren't entitled to any of the social programs that city residents get, like health care or education. And city residents generally look down on them as uncultured and possibly dangerous, just as every migrant group in every other country is treated.

All this is the completely predictable outcome of market reforms, which not only encourage the commodification and exploitation of people but have also supplied them by dismantling the countryside's social insurance and forcing China's extraordinary number of surplus laborers off the land and into the cities.

Yet it's important to acknowledge the positive side of these changes too. Before market reforms it was impossible for people from the countryside to move to the cities because the party decreed that migration wasn't allowed. Because it controlled the entire economy, the party could enforce this by simply cutting off the food supply of anyone who had a different idea. Thus peasants were essentially held in serfdom and exploited for surplus grain that could be invested in industrialization. In important ways, the advent of markets have made China's people much more free. Whether or not trading the party's epic totalitarianism for the petty totalitarianism of one's boss represents a big step in the right direction is more debatable.

2 comments:

Guy from the web said...

You mentioned china was a pretty safe place, and that therefore it wasn't necessary to have so many gards?

Maybe the reason it is a safe place is the omnipresence of security forces, gards.

Aaron said...

I think guy from the web is on to something. Have you considered the gard market? Or the marketing of gards? Are we experiencing a commodification of gards? And what about knee gards? How are those preventing crime?

Gards are the eye in the panopticon. China is a panopticountry. They don't even need to be real gards---as proven by their youngness---they are mere shells of real gards---and yet so effective that China is the safest.

I heard that there was legislation in China to ban lipsinking. What do the gards have to say about this?

thanks for the prompt entry....keep em coming

if you're interested---i have opened my own blog recently at http://madeofpeople.blogspot.com/