Factory girls after the factory: Female return migrations in rural China


by Julia Chuang

Journalists frequently argue that the rise of global outsourcing has generated countless jobs for women in manufacturing, particularly in coastal China’s famed Special Economic Zones. For example, in a 2000 New York Times op-ed, journalist Nicholas Kristof described a trip he took to a factory in the boomtown of Dongguan. There, he wrote, factory girls “seemed to regard it as a plus that the factory allowed them to work long hours. Indeed, some had sought out this factory precisely because it offered them the chance to earn more.”

There are a lot of assumptions packed in this statement. It is true that wages we consider abominably low in the U.S. go a long way for young women in China. But this is a dangerous line of logic. Today, factory managers – and global investors, for that matter – regularly make the assumption that young women are not only wiling to work for less, they should work for less. They reason that these women are often single, not supporting children. If they do have children, managers assume, then they also have a husband who is the primary breadwinner.

Are these factory jobs good for young women, in terms of earnings, status, or household bargaining power? My view is that it takes a long time to know. In my article, I track factory women over various life course stages. First I interview young women working in a factory near Shenzhen. Then I move to a remote, inland village, where factory women, now slightly older, are returning home after years of wage-work.

Factory jobs may generate short-term earnings, but they do not increase women’s household bargaining power. This is because export factories fire women as they reach middle age, forcing middle-aged women to return to their home villages. Now there is a belief, held by scholars and journalists as well factory women themselves, that perhaps factory jobs impart social capital – know-how, social connections, saved wages – that women can leverage to start small businesses: in-home garment production, supply shops, restaurants. But I find few women who actually transition from wage-work to small entrepreneurship.

This is due to life-course and demographic factors. Factories in China’s Special Economic Zones tend to fire women once they reach middle age – these women are now considered less productive, less willing to work for so low a wage. So middle-aged women return to village households. Their work, however, isn’t done. There they marry, raise children, perform farm chores. Their husbands are the primary breadwinners. Meanwhile, they also have aging parents, who once worked in factories and are now not only unemployable, but also lack access to state welfare support. These aging generations must rely on daughters for old-age support. As a result, they encourage their daughters to marry higher-earning migrant men, in hopes that their new son-in-laws will allocate to them a portion of remittance income. They also pressure daughters to stop working outside the home after marriage, a choice believed to increase a woman’s bargaining power with her remittance-sending husband.

These intergenerational dependencies work against women in the long run. In a way, these intergenerational dependencies are produced by the factories themselves. They pay men more than women, and they fire women at middle age. They make women reliant on men, and they make the elderly reliant on the young. In China, factories that hire young women do not liberate them from patriarchy. Instead these factories produce an intergenerational dependence that forces young women to return to domesticity.

Julia Chuang is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Watson Institute for International Studies at Brown University. Her Gender & Society article “Factory Girls After the Factory Female Return Migrations in Rural China” can be found in the June 2016 30 (3) issue.

Originally posted at the Gender & Society blog.

Image: Robert Scoble via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)


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