Human Geography

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

The book’s conclusion reflects further on the internal and external limitations to citizenship challenge driven by migrant worker NGOs, particularly in the light of the crackdown in recent years on activists and NGOs under Xi Jinping. The chapter enquires what this crackdown signifies, given that the main organisations targeted are labour NGOs, and what role the ‘citizenship challenge’ has played in instigating the state’s harsh response. The conclusion also extrapolates the findings beyond the case of labour NGOs in China, by presenting the applicability of the citizenship framework to other instances of civic activism in China and other states facing internal migrations.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter looks at the production of the figure of the worker-citizen as a response to the discrimination against migrants in the public discourse, and the attempts to rectify them as rightful citizens. It traces the process of how this identity of worker-citizen is constructed through acts of ‘voicing’ (of migrants’ grievances), ‘challenging marginalisation’ and ‘constructing a new identity’ for migrant workers. The NGOs which engage in this form of activism aim, though not always successfully, to liberate migrant workers from the hierarchical spatio-temporal rural/urban, backward/modern, and economically useless/useful binaries entrenched in structural citizenship. Consciously cast in the language of class and the value of labour, their figure of worker-citizen rejects both the suzhi discourse and the hukou system’s denigration of migrant workers as second-class citizens, and aims to reshape migrants’ relationship to both the rural and the urban.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter focuses on migrant NGOs’ claims to the city through acts of ‘integrating into the city’ and ‘claiming the right to the city’. Urban citizenship is understood here not only as the legal right to belong to the city, but also as a process of building community within the city and participating in building the city, both materially and culturally. The chapter also analyses whether various forms of engagement and intervention within urban spaces, which take place through these acts, can challenge the powerful discourses around urbanisation, prescribed practices of passivity and the legal constructs at the heart of urban citizenship. This is observed through examples of creating spaces of belonging, defending the last house standing in a demolished urban village, or establishing schools for migrant worker children in defiance of urban development policies and the constraints of the hukou system. The chapter also takes into account the obstacles to such citizenship transformation by reflecting critically upon the structural limitations put up by the state and by capital to bar migrant workers from successfully claiming the right to the city.

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

Drawing on existing studies of migrant workers and civil society in China, the introduction examines the relevance of current theoretical debates in the social sciences and in Chinese studies to the migrant workers’ social, spatial and political exclusion, and looks for a new framework which can account for the phenomena observed during the fieldwork carried out by the author. This chapter presents the empirical background, the theoretical framework of the book, the methodological approach taken and the contribution the book makes in the field of citizenship, civil society and labour movement studies.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter demonstrates that NGOs’ demands revolving around labour cannot be divorced from wider citizenship rights, such as the right to voice, assembly, striking, recognition, representation and political participation. It does so by presenting three further acts: ‘educating beyond rights’, ‘advocating and petitioning’ and ‘claiming rights’ (to independent labour representation, collective bargaining and strikes). These acts are not performed through state-defined legal channels, and instead seek to transform the law itself. The chapter argues that while the activism of NGOs performed around labour affects the citizenship structure in a variegated way, some NGOs recognise citizenship transformation as a precondition to successfully tackling labour issues in China.

in China’s citizenship challenge
A genealogical enquiry
Małgorzata Jakimów

In a largely chronological manner, this chapter presents a history of the mutual co-constitution of the citizenship regime and discourse. It argues that the current formulation of citizenship in China is founded not only on the formal legislative aspect of the hukou system, but also on the underlying citizenship discourse, which stems from the processes of modernisation, urbanisation and nationalism, underlined by the new economic divisions created by market reforms. The chapter traces genealogies of citizenship in China in order to reveal how it has been constructed through the mechanism of the spatio-temporal ‘othering’ of the rural/migrant worker population. It then presents the attempts by central and local governments to reform the hukou system, arguing that despite much debate about reform of the system since 2003, and particularly since 2014, not enough has been done to truly transform the citizenship status of migrant workers in China. It also discusses the state-prescribed citizenship practices, which are enforced both through the law and through public campaigns and school education, and reflects on what type of citizen they promote. The final section of the chapter sets out how these various historical and contemporary discourses have been entangled in local China, in the form of the municipal authorities’ policies and narratives towards migrant workers in Shenzhen, Beijing and Hangzhou, the main fieldwork sites.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter discusses how NGOs challenge the mainstream citizenship discourse and policies in relation to the first ‘site’ of citizenship contestation: civic organising. It focuses, in particular, on instances when the act of ‘networking’ transforms the wider citizenship structure. As an ‘act of citizenship’, networking is shaped by the limitations to civil and political rights of citizenship in China, and this chapter illustrates how networking can push for new practices of activist citizenship, such as volunteerism and inter-NGO networking. Through the act of networking, NGOs challenge the limitations of the hostile environment for inter-organisational networking and assembly in China, redrafting what is regarded as ‘acceptable’ for civic interactions. The chapter reflects on the tremendous obstacles due to the constrictions of political space and the transformation in the state’s approach to foreign funding under Xi Jinping, and their consequences for NGOs’ survival.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter discusses how NGOs challenge the official citizenship discourse and policy in relation to the first ‘site’ of citizenship contestation: civic organising. It focuses, in particular, on instances when acts of ‘organising’ transform the wider citizenship structure. As an ‘act of citizenship’, organising is shaped by the limitations to civil and political rights of citizenship in China. The chapter illustrates how the act of organising, which is often undertaken under many financial, political and legal constraints, allows migrant workers who set up NGOs to manifest their resolve to take action over the circumstances in which they live. By doing so, they assert the right to voice, which they are not normally granted in the public space, and the right to organise, negotiating the role and function of citizen-formed organisations in China, thereby reshaping citizenship practices.

in China’s citizenship challenge
Małgorzata Jakimów

This chapter analyses two acts, ‘defending rights’ and ‘educating in legal rights’, which utilise state-designated channels (in this case, labour laws), and therefore do not challenge the state directly. The chapter demonstrates the special role which labour rights play in negotiation of citizenship in China. Unlike aspirational kinds of rights, such as the right to the city or the right to self-organise, labour rights are usually framed as already existing ‘legal rights’ (hefa quanyi), which simply need to be ‘respected’, and, until recently, this made activism around them somehow less contentious. The chapter reflects critically on when ‘defending rights’ and ‘educating in legal rights’ can have a transformative effect on citizenship and when they help to maintain the status quo, by comparing cases when they help to produce active and informed citizens, and when they do not.

in China’s citizenship challenge