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October 31 2011

Sarosh Kuruvilla Publishes New Book, From Iron Rice Bowl to Informalization

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The ILR school held its first global conference on labor in China two years ago.  In August 2010, Cornell University Press published “From Iron Rice bowl to Informalization”   a book that included some of the papers from that conference.   The book is edited by ILR Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla, Ching Kwan Lee (Professor of Sociology at UCLA) and Mary E. Gallagher (Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan.

Pulling together a group of young scholars from multiple disciplines doing exciting work in China, the editors have produced a volume that looks at how the labor scene has changed during the last 30 years of economic reform in China. They show how Chinese employment relations has moved from a highly stable and permanent employment regime with good wages and benefits for all (called the iron rice-bowl system) to an employment system that is now characterized by non secure (informal) employment for more than 40% of the Chinese workforce.

The chapters in the volume highlight both the causes and effects of these changes.  The argument is that despite new developments in more protective labor legislation designed to curb both informal work and abusive working conditions, the success of these efforts depends on adequate implementation of the laws. And there are widely differing interests between the Central Chinese state (that has promulgated the legislation) and local governments (who have to implement it).  The chapters capture the centrality of informal employment in the business strategies of companies as well as the new experimental responses of labor unions and labor friendly non-governmental organizations.  In balancing the differential interests of central and local governments, employers, and workers, the editors of the volume are pessimistic that informal employment can be immediately reversed: rather, their evidence suggests that the new laws may have the unintended consequences of driving even more people into informal employment.

Although the growth of contingent work is a global phenomenon , and particularly severe in East Asia, the Chinese journey from permanent employment to high levels of informal employment in a matter of just 30 years is unique on account of the speed of the transition, and as the editors suggest, unique in terms of the strong legislative response of the state to cure the problem.  Given that implementation is key,  the books’ contribution lies in the how the authors weave together evidence from a variety of chapters to make predictions about the future trajectory of employment relations in a rapidly changing China.