December 3 2012
Manfred Elfstrom, Ph.D Student
In June 2012, I used a generous international travel grant from the ILR School to travel to the Pearl River Delta, Shanghai, Chengdu and Beijing to study the changing nature of labor unrest and the changing relationship between workers and the state in China. I interviewed labor academics, labor activists, and company managers. The data I gathered rounded out a project on strikes and protests that I had begun with Professor Sarosh Kuruvilla the previous summer and spurred the development of hypotheses for my future dissertation research.
In Shanghai and Beijing, I met with academics who helped me conceptualize differences between central government and local government responses to unrest, as well as the changing legal environment for workers (direct union elections, a potential right to strike, etc). While in Chengdu, I toured a factory that had experienced a strike the year before, interviewing plant human resource managers. The Pearl River Delta has been at the center of worker activism over the past decade; while there, I spoke with leaders of labor non-governmental organizations (NGOs) about new state efforts to control their activities, as well as workers' evolving attitudes.
I relied principally on China's extensive train network to travel between sites. Besides saving money, this provided useful—if fleeting—insights into the country's economic development. For example, scores of incomplete and apparently abandoned construction projects in many small towns spoke to the real estate glut that some experts fear may cause a crash in the near future. The explosive growth on display in Chengdu, though, drove home the degree to which the location of the country's dynamism is shifting. Interior rail and highway construction showed one way that rural Chinese are finding employment closer to their hometowns, putting new pressure on coastal factories—and potentially
emboldening those workers who remain on the coast to demand higher wages.
Overall, the trip helped me to deepen and amend earlier impressions and to set a clearer course for my research going forward. I would like to thank the international programs committee for seeing potential in my trip and supporting it.