1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Gender and Development (2000 - 2009)

The Impact of Export-oriented Manufacturing on Chinese Women Workers (Draft)



This paper is concerned with the impact of employment in the export-orientated industries of China on women workers and in particular on their access to healthcare and social welfare. It discusses the way in which the economic reforms, the growth of non-state industry, and the development of a labour market have affected non-wage benefits to workers. It shows that women workers in the new export-oriented industries receive high wages by the standards prevailing in the older state industries, but have little job security, work long hours in poor conditions and lack the health and welfare benefits formerly enjoyed in state-owned industry in China. However, it would be an over-simplification to argue that involvement in the global economy has provided higher wages to the Chinese workforce while reducing security and welfare provision. Access to welfare in pre-reform or ‘socialist China’ was by no means as comprehensive or as generous as is sometimes believed. Entitlement depended on residence and occupation. Urban workers benefited from the system, but peasants, the majority of the population, had little access to public provision. In difficulties caused by bereavement, disability, sickness or old age they had to depend on the family.

Section one of this study offers an overview of the social welfare regimes of China before and after the economic reforms. Section two looks at the female workforce of the export-processing industry, explaining where the workers come from, describing their lives and working conditions and the controls and pressures to which they are subject. Section three considers the ways in which migration and work in this labour force affect women workers’ life-chances, family relations and entitlements. Section four looks at state policy towards problems of social welfare. It explains why the state is unwilling to promote social welfare policies either for the workforce in state owned industries or for the new migrant workforce more actively, and considers differences of interest between local and national officials.

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