Special Issue Call for Papers


Changing work, labour and
employment relations in China

Guest Editors: Sarosh Kuruvilla and Eli Friedman (Cornell University)

Please submit your paper between 01 and 31 January 2013

It has been over 30 years since China embarked on its new economic development strategy that has resulted in the dramatic and sustained economic growth rates unparalleled for large economies during the last five decades. This rapid economic growth has been accompanied by transformations in most arenas, such as economic policy, trade, education, internal and external migration, law, and managerial practices, all of which have been the subject of considerable scholarship.

There is comparatively little published scholarship (in English) about how the economic transformation in China is influencing changes in the nature and quality of work, employment conditions, the strategies of workers, unions and labour activist organizations (NGOs), and on the nature and quality of labour-management relations in China. The absence of abundant scholarship in this area (in contrast to scholarship on human resource management) is striking given current developments, particularly the growth of informal employment and labour militancy (there has been a very large number of work stoppages and strikes during the last few years).

A partial explanation for the relative absence of scholarship on these topical labour issues stems from some degree of self-censorship by China-based academics, as the subject of labour activism is a sensitive issue (writ large) for the Chinese government. Academics from outside China, who publish much of the work, also have faced problems of adequate access, although that is changing. Nevertheless, as both changes in work and labour issues rapidly gain center stage in China, there is increased scholarly interest, particularly visible in the development of labour related research networks consisting of both foreign and Chinese scholars. It is an opportune moment for Human Relations to tap into this emerging scholarship on an important economic and social policy issue in contemporary China, an issue that that is undergoing rapid transformation. This is the key rationale for this call for papers on transformations in work, labour, and employment relations in China.

Several recent developments make this call for papers opportune. In January 2008 the Chinese government enacted a much debated protective labour legislation (the Labor Contract Law) to curb the rapid informalization of work in China, but the effects of this law have not been studied systematically. This law was buttressed by a new pensions legislation in 2010, the impact of which is as yet unexplored. While the law encourages collective bargaining, we also see a clear increase in industrial unrest, with some strikes highly coordinated, others more spontaneous, but many resulting in significant wage increases for workers. Are these recent strikes different from the protests of desperation (workers in state-owned companies protesting job loss) or protests of discrimination (protests by migrant workers who do not have citizenship rights (hukou) in urban areas where they work) noted by Ching Kwan Lee (2007)? There is increased variation in the strategies of regional and city level trade unions, suggesting that the popular image of the ACFTU as being a monolithic top-down organization may not be accurate anymore.

What factors might increase the bargaining power and voice of Chinese workers? Kuruvilla, Gallagher and Lee (2011) hypothesize that the shortage of workers—a function of decline in working population resulting from the one child policy and institutional discrimination against migrants as a result of the hukou system (which remains a barrier to the permanent migration and urbanization of many rural citizens)—will increase both wages and voice. Others argue that China may be at a Lewisian turning point, when labour scarcity begins to shift the economy away from labour intensive input-driven growth to enhanced productivity, declining inequality and greater domestic consumption. We know very little about how firms are reacting to these changes in labour costs, and whether they are re-structuring work in ways that increase employee skills and involvement.

Changing worker demographics—and, in particular, the new generation of migrant workers who appear more educated, more conscious of their rights—portend increasing worker activism. At the same time, the government appears to be permitting a greater degree of media openness (as witnessed in the case of the strikes in the summer of 2010). And there is some institutional pressure, for increased collective bargaining (especially in Guangdong), and some form of hukou reform. These efforts may serve to further increase the bargaining power of workers, as might the efforts of non-state actors such as labour NGOs and other groups. However, a better understanding of work and labour in China requires us to look beyond highly studied manufacturing to other sectors, and to other unstudied regions. We need more research on employer perspectives, in addition to worker perspectives. We need more research on the middle stratum of the labour force as China upgrades technologically, in contrast to the predominant focus on migrant workers and manufacturing.

Given the above context, this special issue invites papers that address the following research questions:

  • What is the impact of the Labor Contract Law 2008 on Chinese employers, workers and unions? Is the law implemented uniformly across China, and if not, what factors account for the variation in implementation? To what extent has the law altered the strategies and attitudes of employers, unions, NGOs and workers? How have recent legislative reforms (e.g. pensions) altered the incidence of informal work? How are labour laws enforced?
  • How are notions of work changing as China completes its transformation from a communist society to a capitalist one?
  • What accounts for growing industrial unrest in China? What is the extent of industrial unrest in the form of worker protests and strikes? What are the key determinants? Who strikes and why? What are the outcomes of strikes?
  • How is the bargaining power of Chinese workers changing? What contextual factors enhance or retard the bargaining power of Chinese workers (e.g., labour shortages, changes in migration policy, changes in the hukou policy, intergenerational changes amongst migrant workers)?
  • What is the role, influence and effects of NGOs and the media on workers, labour law enforcement, on government?
  • How is the process of collective bargaining changing?
  • Is the trend towards increased informalisation/casualisation of work continuing? What has been the impact of the increasing prevalence of dual labour markets on the organization of work in manufacturing?
  • How is work structured in some of less-studied industries, e.g. food and beverage, transportation, energy, sanitation, civil service? How does this complicate ideas about work in China, which are mostly based on studies of the manufacturing sector?
  • Particularly relevant in China’s southwestern and western regions, how do ethnic differences between Han and minorities impact conditions of work?
  • How are employers responding to worker militancy, labour shortages, technological upgrading and skill shortages of Chinese workers
  • How has the transformation of the economy affected the production of skills in China?

We are seeking submissions based on well designed empirical investigations of these issues and related issues. We welcome qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods approaches. Single and multiple case studies are also welcome. Our review of the papers will depend heavily on the quality of the research design, as well as the argument and substantive contributions of the papers.

Contributors should note:

  • This call is open and competitive, and the submitted papers will be blind reviewed in the usual way.
  • Submitted papers must be based on original material not accepted by, or under consideration with, any other journal or outlet.
  • For empirical papers based on data sets from which multiple papers have been generated, authors must provide the Guest Editors with copies of all other papers based on the same data.
  • The guest editors will select a limited number of papers to be included in the special issue. Other papers submitted to the special issue may be considered for publication in other issues of the journal at the discretion of the Editor-in-Chief.

The deadline for submission is 31 January 2013 and submissions should not be submitted before 01 January 2013.

The special issue is intended for publication in the second half of 2014 or early 2015.

To be considered for this Special Issue, submissions must fit with the Aim and Scope of Human Relations as well as the call for papers. Papers should also adhere to the submission requirements of Human Relations and will be submitted through the online system http://mc.manuscriptcentral.com/hr of the Journal. Please indicate in your covering letter that the paper is intended for this special issue.

Please direct questions about the submission process, or any administrative matter, to the Editorial Office: humanrelationsjournal@tavinstitute.org.