Prof. Andreas Bieler and I have been awarded a grant of £275k by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) for a project on ‘Globalisation, national transformation and workers’ rights: an analysis of Chinese labour within the global economy’ (RES-062-23-2777; full project proposal). The project starts to run from 1 October 2011. On this blog, I will regularly provide a discussion of empirical findings related to this project.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Pretty Girls, Working on the Shop-Floor

When I received the student’s request to give a talk to female workers at their centre outside a factory in Shenzhen, I was hesitant. I am not an expert in gender studies, and certainly not familiar with women’s position in the power structure in the factory. But the student who was in charge of this event was very tenacious. I couldn’t say no to her in the end, because the student told me how rare it is to have a female scholar visiting their workers’ centre. Therefore I went, with a very humble attitude, to see all the young girls from the factory. I planned my talking points, on being confident at work, or finding channels to relieve pressure from work. However, those girls are much stronger than I expected. They actually told me that when they faced unfairness at work, sometimes it was not because ‘they are not nice enough’, but because they are weaker in power. They also said that that they did not have the choice of what they would like to do in life; they have limited resources and limited opportunities to get on with their lives.

As I’m not quite confident about giving a feminist lecture, and the student told me they had had a ‘skin-care’ seminar before, I started to ask them about their definition of beauty (I think all the feminists will hate this starting question). To my surprise, those young girls told me that being a natural, true-to-yourself person is what they think of as beauty. They told me that it is not important to be a pretty girl in the factory, and they don’t think of beauty often. The thoughts that occupied their minds are how to interact with their roommates after working all day; how to leave the factories after working there for couple of years. So I asked them about their goals in life, and almost all of them told me that they want to learn some skills at the factory and then be promoted from their current lowly position. They also want to save some money so they can leave the factory, to do something else. However, both of these goals proved to be difficult to achieve. We discussed whether that was because they lived in a patriarchal society, making female promotion rare and difficult. This actually is the case not only in China but also in other societies; I told them that maybe in China the imbalance is greater than in Western society, but it doesn’t mean that unfairness towards women only exists in China. But Chinese women haven’t started to make formal complaints, as women in other societies did, perhaps a hundred years ago.

The atmosphere of the discussion seemed to be a bit gloomy at this point. In order to cheer my young audience up, I told them that even though social constraints are heavier for women than for men, we can still be brave and go for our dreams. For instance, if you have a dream to be a gardener or cook, you should seriously pursuit it. It was at this moment that a girl asked me: ‘Teacher, do you like your work?’ I replied spontaneously with a ‘yes!’ I still remember the girl’s facial impression now: a mixture of disbelief and envy, after she heard my answer. She merely responded with a very weak, ‘oh!’ I felt like I had to say something more in response to her (or the whole group’s) emotional reaction, so I said that I’ve sacrificed a lot to do what I am doing now: I left my family, and have lived abroad for almost ten years… There was no further response from the audience. However, deep down in my mind I know that I had touched on a sore spot for those girls: that I can ‘choose’ what I am doing for a living, but they have rather limited choices. One may argue that this is not a unique situation that affects only those Chinese girls; I totally agree, and besides, they are probably much better off than some girls in even poorer circumstances. Nevertheless, I realised that perhaps I am much richer than them in being able to choose my path in life; yet they are much richer than me in fighting to close the gap between their work and their dreams.


  1. What a wonderful blog post, Chun-Yi

    1. Thank you Gary, those girls are wonderful, I just reflected on their thoughts..