Occupational health and social estrangement in China

Author: Wing-Chung Ho

This book is about the lived experience of occupationally sick workers in China. When China initiated its economic reform in 1978, the Pearl River Delta (PRD) started attracting immense industrial capital from Hong Kong. The aftermath of the Zhili fire marked the invention and consolidation of different strategies on the part of Hong Kong-based NGOs to protect the rights of Chinese workers. The spinning-off of Labor Action China (LAC) from Christian Industrial Committee (CIC) in 2005 was prompted by the surge of pneumoconiosis cases among gemstone/jewelry workers in Guangdong province. In understanding the post-illness experiences of sick Chinese workers, the book subscribes to Michel Foucault's view that they face a hybrid of powers involving sovereignty, discipline, and governmentality. It argues that the social estrangement of Chinese sick workers can be understood as an instantiation of Agamben's notion of homo sacer - the ultimate biopolitical subject whose life is located outside "normal" political, economic, and cultural practices. The narratives of cadmium-poisoned workers suggest that they usually find themselves in situations where their rights are being exploited. Sick workers tend to strategize their pursuit of compensation toward the mode of "rightful resistance". The book sheds light on one response pattern observed at the actor-power interface, the compromising citizenry. It discusses the three major types of preferred ways of seeking compensation solicited from different groups of occupationally sick workers, namely, the craving for sick role status, rightful resistance, and compromising citizenry, can be considered as struggles for obtaining "legality".

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