13 août 2005


pages 86 à 90 du très remarquable livre de Pietra Rivoli : The travels of a T-shirt in the global economy, Wiley 2005 (cf. ici)

Docility on a Leash
Jiang Lan works eight hours per day, six days per week in the Number 36 yarn factory in Shanghai. Her job is fixing broken yarn. She sits on a hard metal chair that is attached to tracks on the floor in front of a row of spindles. By depressing the pedal at her foot, Lan glides left and right along the tracks, stopping wherever she sees a flashing red light, the signal of broken yarn. With a deft and intricate move of her fingers, she repairs the yarn, then glides left or right to the next flashing light. Lan does this all day, wrapped in the steam and cotton flurries, blanketed by the metal noise. At the end of the day, Lan steps outside to the surprising quiet and walks across the gravel road to the company dormitory. And at the end of the month, she receives a paycheck of about $100. She saves pretty much all of it.

Yes, she says. She likes her job.

Jiang Lan, of course, is China's comparative advantage. Yet while the sheer number of Jiang Lans, as well as their low wages, are often put forth to explain Chinas dominance in light manufacturing, the truth is that these economic factors—the supply and price of labor—take us only part of the way toward understanding China's leadership position in this industry. The whole story requires that we understand not only supply and price, terms that have meaning everywhere, but also that we understand Lan’s life in China, its limits and its possibilities. Since the rise of industry in eighteenth-century England, ideal workers for low-end textile and apparel work have been those that endure repetitive drudgery not just cheaply, but willingly and uncomplainingly.

Researchers from a wide variety of backgrounds and nationalities, examining disparate regions and different centuries, come again and again to the "D" word in describing the ideal textile and apparel worker. Docility, in turn, in Lancashire, Massachusetts, South Carolina, Japan, Taiwan, and Hong Kong has been the product of a lack of alternatives, lack of experience, and limited horizons. Ironically, while the founding principles of the modern Chinese state rest on the rights of the working class, the Chinese government has at the same time engineered a system of laws virtually assuring an almost unlimited supply of docility. The Chinese government controls Jiang Lan's life in ways that are bad for China's human rights record but very good for the production of T-shirts. Jiang Lan, in effect, is on a leash that restricts her choices, her experience, what she sees, and where she goes. It is not so much the labor market but the curse of anti-market forces in Chinese history that restricts her life and its possibilities.

Accidents of birth have always shaped destiny: race in America or class in England or caste in India. In China, the accident is hukou. To the worker, hukou is the leash, but to the textile industry, hukou is competitive strength, ensuring a stable and cheap labor force for the urban industry while at the same time ensuring that Jiang Lan and her colleagues bring their labor, but not themselves, to Shanghai. Roughly translated, hukou is a place of household registration. For a Chinese citizen today, the hukou specifies where you live, no matter where you actually are.

The hukou system was devised in the 1950s to support the economic development plans of the new Communist China. The great majority of the country's citizens were assigned rural hukous: Those with rural hukous were required to remain in the countryside to produce quotas of food within their communes, and were normally barred even from traveling to the cities. Through the hukou system, China ensured a stable food supply for its cities while at the same time limiting the population of the urban areas. In reality, however, the masses in the countryside were "surplus labor," an academic term for people with nothing to do, people so "surplus" that their presence had no effect on the output of the commune. And while forcing the masses to remain idle in the countryside, China devoted its resources to the urban population, developing the cities' housing, education, healthcare, and infrastructure while leaving the rural population to fend for itself. As the cities developed, hundreds of millions of unskilled, barely educated people were held captive in their rural villages by their hukou.

In the late 1980s, however, China began to gradually liberalize the hukou system, lifting up the land away from the coast and pouring the rural masses to the coastal areas to produce T-shirts and sneakers and plastic toys. But even today, each rural citizen rolling toward the coast is on a leash. They can visit the city but they cannot easily stay; they can bring their labor but not themselves or their families. These workers are liudong renkou, which translates roughly to "floating people." As of the mid-1990s, 40 percent of the labor force in the Shanghai textile industry were "floating" girls and women from the rural areas. Human Rights Watch in China estimates that the rural migrant population in Chinas cities is between 60 and 120 million. In 2003, the AFL-CIO charged that China's exploitive hukou practices constituted an unfair trade advantage.

The rural hukou defines and limits the worker's life in Shanghai. Floaters work 25 percent more hours per week but earn 40 percent less than those with urban hukous. Because they are not residents of Shanghai, they do not have access to what is left of the urban residents' "iron rice bowl" services such as subsidized housing, childcare, healthcare, and pension benefits. Most of the Shanghai floating population lives at work, in dormitories, makeshift shelters, or in the workshop itself. Some floaters are able to rent housing, but they pay six times as much as urban residents for half as much space. Toilets and kitchen facilities are the norm for the city dwellers and the exception for the migrants. The workers come to the city alone; there is usually no living space, schooling, or healthcare for their spouses and children. The floaters are Chinas Bracero workers. In a more recent analogy, China labor specialist Anita Chan has likened the hukou system to South African apartheid.

Sometimes China's floating workers show up in the city and hope for the best, but often the migrants have prearranged employment, especially in the textile and construction industries. Migrants risk not only economic failure but also detention and worse under China's regulations on "Custody and Repatriation." Under these regulations, a rural visitor with the "three not haves" (sanwu renyuan)—no papers, no job, no address—can be forcibly detained in a C&R center, or sent home. At best, detention is costly (citizens detained must pay to be released); at worst, it is tortuous. And even those workers with employment live an uneasy life in the city, because the regulations governing migration to the cities are so byzantine that virtually every visitor is in violation of one rule or another. Depending on the city, a visitor might need an identity card, a temporary residence card, an employment registration card, a migrant identity card, a housing permit, and a family planning permit, each obtained from a different agency at significant cost. In the cities studied by Knight et al., the permits necessary to avoid the C&R laws—if they can be obtained—cost more than half the monthly wage for the typical migrant worker. Often, by the time the worker gets the final necessary document, the first has expired.

Though China has recently increased migrant workers' protections under the C&R rules, many of these protections are only theoretical, because, as Anthony Kuhn found, the limitless supply of rural migrants means that only those who surrender their protections are likely to be hired. Even government officials acknowledge that migrants are often not paid: In one survey the government found that 72.5 percent of migrants were owed back wages by their employers. And though the law requires that the migrants have employment contracts, more than 90 percent of workers do not.

The factories have an uneasy relationship with their floating workers. Managers report that the floating workers are critical to production, not only because they are cheaper than their urban counterparts, but, more important, because they "can bear more hardship" and are "more manageable." Managers report that they hire floating workers for the simple reason that city workers will not take the dusty, steamy, noisy work of the construction and textile trades, and, even if they would, the city folk not only talk back, but are physically not up to the work. Yet the factories' ability to hire migrants is restricted: Only some jobs are open to floating workers, and enterprises may have quota limits on the number of floating workers they may employ. The government uses the quota system as a labor market intervention: expanding the quotas during boom times and restricting the quotas during times of urban unemployment. The rural workers are the variable cost, ebbing and flowing with the American appetite for T-shirts.

Until today, each stop in the race to the bottom has been more fleeting than the last. Today, however, China's lead in the race to the bottom in textiles apparel is the same yet different from that of her predecessors. The characteristics of the ideal worker—particularly docility and desperation—have not changed, the repetitive drudgery of at least most of the work has not changed, the relentless cost pressure has not changed, and the role of the rural poor in powering the factories has not changed. Yet China's sheer size, and especially the remnants of the state-engineered hukou system, ensures that the supply of docile young women from the farm will be much greater than it was for China's industrial predecessors. China, for the foreseeable future, will likely lead in the race to the bottom.

As was the case for slaves, sharecroppers, and bracero workers, it is not the perils of the labor market that block the path for Chinese textile and apparel workers. Instead, as was the case for these prior generations as well, it is a state-engineered system that limits the ability of these workers to participate in the market as full citizens.

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