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Labour NGOs and the struggle for migrant workers’ rights

In twenty-first-century Chinese cities there are hundreds of millions of rural migrants who are living temporary lives, suspended between urban and rural China. They are the unsung heroes of the country’s ‘economic miracle’, yet are regarded as second-class citizens in both a cultural, material and legal sense. China’s citizenship challenge tells the story of how civic organisations set up by some of these rural migrants challenge this citizenship marginalisation. The book argues that in order to effectively address the problems faced by migrant workers, these NGOs must undertake ‘citizenship challenge’: the transformation of migrant workers’ social and political participation in public life, the broadening of their access to labour and other rights, and the reinvention of their relationship to the city. By framing the NGOs’ activism in terms of citizenship rather than class struggle, this book offers a valuable contribution to the field of labour movement studies in China. The monograph also proves exceptionally timely in the context of the state’s repression of these organisations in recent years, which, as the book explores, was largely driven by their citizenship-altering activism.

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Citizenship challenge, social inequality and the insecure state
Małgorzata Jakimów

. Contrary to the conventional wisdom that migrant workers’ struggle is driven by economic factors alone, this book has illustrated that for the struggle to be effective, it has to engage with other aspects: political, social, spatial, legal and economic all at once. The three sites around which labour NGOs’ activism concentrates – civic organising, labour and space – reflect these wider ramifications of migrant workers’ struggle for rights. What unites these seemingly disparate foci is their underlying connection to the question of citizenship: what citizenship rights one

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

of citizenship transformation. This chapter shows how the ability to challenge the existing citizenship make-up through networking is heavily circumscribed by the divergent goals of foreign donors and NGOs and the competition between NGOs for resources. Yet, it also reveals how the act of networking can dramatically question and reshape the prescriptive citizenship practices imposed by the state, because it allows for the formation of networks both within the cities, between labour NGOs across China and across national boundaries, making activism around the

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

. The difficulties that the law poses to the mere act of organising a migrant NGO are indeed substantial. Very few labour NGOs manage to register with MOCA, even despite the simplified procedures since 2012. Moreover, the new legislation helps the Public Security forces to more easily intervene and crack down on organisations seen as a ‘public security threat’, making the law an effective tool of control. Indeed, the state is using these laws to disperse labour NGOs, particularly in Guangdong province, as the cases of sentencing of labour activists in 2016 and 2019

in China’s citizenship challenge
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Labour non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

working-class status. What can be broadly conceived of as spatial claims arise from the experience of marginalisation within the cities, resulting in an existence suspended between rural and urban, producing a profound experience of non-belonging. This book presents how labour NGOs come across, and consequently are forced to address, the question of citizenship as a key unifying factor behind such treatment of migrant workers in China. Migrant workers’ citizenship in China has traditionally been discussed in relation to the infamous hukou system

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

Figure 5.2 ). Interestingly, there has been a growing involvement of labour NGOs in supporting striking workers, particularly since 2010, which has prompted some observers to label these NGOs ‘labour movement type’ (see Chapter 2 ). Figure 5.1 The number of recorded strikes in the years 2012–2017 (whole of China

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

workers’ disputes in court. Although the local branch of the Labour Bureau did not initially allow this in 2009, it finally agreed later that year for the NGO to represent migrants in court if it could personally secure consent for its role as an arbitrator from the local court. 16 The NGO's ability to arbitrate and even represent workers in the litigation process is quite unprecedented in China: the typical scenario among other labour NGOs (apart from those interviewed in Guangdong) is that they have to refer a migrant

in China’s citizenship challenge
A genealogical enquiry
Małgorzata Jakimów

of migrant workers in these localities. The comparison also sketches out the direction of local experimentation and its influence on migrant workers’ positionality within structural citizenship. Finally, it provides a fuller assessment of the reasons why labour NGOs’ activism differs in each location and what chance these organisations have to influence citizenship regimes in each location in the future. Beijing Beijing is perhaps the most striking case of exclusionary policies towards migrant workers. The capital remains one

in China’s citizenship challenge