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Welfare for Migrant Factory Workers: Moral Struggles and Politics of Care under Market Socialism

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - WelfareStruggles (Welfare for Migrant Factory Workers: Moral Struggles and Politics of Care under Market Socialism)

Período documentado: 2020-08-01 hasta 2022-01-31

China and Vietnam have come to be known as the factories of the world. As state socialist countries for decades, the two countries abandoned central planning for marketization at the turn of the 1980s. With political systems that feature continued leadership of the communist party at the same time with deepening privatization, these countries are now vastly different from what they used to be. Economic growth, industrialization and urbanization have ushered in entirely new landscapes of production, consumption, and mobility.

One major transformation has been in the realm of social protection. Following years of declining socialist welfare, both governments have been recently pushing ahead with ambitious welfare programs. Like in many other southern contexts, universal health insurance, pension, and cash transfers have been expanding along with provisions by diverse non-state actors. Another transformation has been massive rural-urban labor mobility. In both countries, millions of people migrate to urban and industrial areas to work in factories that produce consumer goods for the whole world. Many live away from their families as they work to sustain them. WelfareStruggles comparatively examines the moral politics underlining the ways in which the migrant labor force is being cared for in the two countries by focusing on the welfare of the migrant factory workers and their families. The labour of migrant workers has been instrumental to both national development and global corporations’ profitability in these rapidly changing countries. Their welfare is a domain in which the workers, the state, global capital, and global society all have a stake. The focus on migrant worker welfare is therefore highly productive for understanding the moral, social, and political dynamics of welfare restructuring as part of global politics of production and global dynamics of social protection.

This project examines the moral politics around the definition of needs, the logics and practices of provision and access, as well as the claims and contestations between recipients and providers of welfare. The objectives are threefold:
1. to understand how welfare provisions for migrant factory workers are conceived, executed, and perceived by the actors involved; compare the moral dynamics of welfare restructuring between China and Vietnam; and locate market socialist welfare in the broader context of welfare transformations in the Global South.
The PI (Professor Minh Nguyen) and her research unit spent the first six months of the project on the recruitment and placement of the team members, including the work of dealing with clearance procedures, advertising, selection, interview, employment contracting, immigration procedures, relocation assistance, enrolment procedures for the PhD researchers. The whole process was complicated and full of unexpected challenges that needed urgent solutions, and it was a major accomplishment that by September 2019, we had assembled a team, with members having studied or having worked in institutions around the world, including Dr Jake Lin (post-doctoral researcher), Ms Minh Ngoc Luong and Ms Yueran Tian (doctoral researchers).

In September 2019, we held the project’s kick-off workshop, The Good Life in Late Socialist Asia: Aspirations, Politics, Possibilities. The workshop was co-financed by a conference grant of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of Bielefeld University, which we secured on a competitively basis. It attracted an impressive range of established and emerging scholars from around the world, especially from Asia. By framing the kick-off workshop in a way that places the project's focus on welfare provision within the broader theme of the good life, the project obtained greater analytical depth and scope. Thanks to the excellent discussion and contributions of workshop participants, we were able to prepare two special issues; one has been published by the European Journal of East Asian Studies and the other is now under review with another prestigious regional journal.

By the summer of 2020, the team members had prepared detailed research proposals and plans, having acquired sufficient methodological and theoretical training. A Research Ethics Strategy was developed to the satisfaction of the ethics advisor of the project and the ERC ethics committee. In this regard, we organised two graduate seminars on research ethics, three workshops on data protection and a joint workshop with the ERC project Whales of Power (University of Oslo) on the ethics and practicalities of doing fieldwork in East Asia during the current pandemic, which was a great opportunity for exchanges. In addition, the virtual workshop Global Encounter at the beginning of 2021 brought together researchers from the project and our two partner institutions in China and Vietnam.

Data collection took place from the fall of 2020 until recently. By the end of the reporting period in September 2021, the data collection via the two ethnographic studies are completed. The two PhD researchers are on track to produce two important theses on the changing relationship between migrant labour and welfare in China and Vietnam, which will provide ample opportunities for comparison between these two contexts. The data collection for the comparative social policy analysis requires more time because the researcher was unable to enter the countries due to border restrictions, having had to rely on field-based research assistants after months of waiting. Nevertheless, the data collected are of sufficient quality for comparative analysis and we expect to be able to fulfil the goals of the project with some cost-neutral extension. It is indeed a major achievement that a large part of the fieldwork has been conducted given all the border restrictions and uncertainties in the last years.

In the meantime, we also presented our work at international conferences and gave invited lectures. We organised three scientific panels at major international conferences: a panel on care and privatisation in China and Vietnam at the 2019 American Anthropological Association's Annual Conference in Vancouver, a panel on the gender of labour in Vietnam at the 2019 European Association of Southeast Asian Studies conference in Berlin, and a panel on welfare restructuring in China and Vietnam in the ICAS conference in 2021. These panels situate the project’s work in the broader context of privatization and changing social relations in China and Vietnam and initiated fruitful discussions among conference participants from around the world.

Finally, we successfully organised the mid-term conference of the project, Reconfiguring Labour and Welfare in Emerging Economies of the Global South, in December 2021. The conference connects the empirical and conceptual issues of the project with the broader context of the changing relationship between labour and welfare in the Global South. It received co-financing from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of Bielefeld University and has attracted established and emerging international scholars.
Despite the setbacks induced by the pandemic, we have made considerable progress in both conceptual and empirical terms, as evidenced by the quality and scope of our publications and events.

The special issues from the kick-off workshop identify welfare as an idea and an institution of the good life around which various social and moral struggles are emerging. As such, the question of welfare for migrant factory workers and their family is also one about their ideas and practices of the good life and the struggles that they face in pursuing it. These volumes speak to the ways in which conceptions and politics of the good life are shaped by the particular political economy of market socialism in which paradoxical value frameworks impose limits on people’s aspirations and possibilities for the good life.

The Development and Change article (Nguyen T.N.M. 2020. Portfolios of Social Protection, Labour Mobility and the Rise of Life Insurance in rural North Central Vietnam) identifies the rise of private life insurance as an emerging method of social protection among rural communities in central Vietnam where a large number of migrant factory workers originate. This aspect are considered by the researchers when examining the welfare provision for the factory workers and their families in the countryside. This article also uncovers the increasing significance of risk in household social protection strategies, which is strongly related to the tendency of recommodification in welfare governance (for example through private insurance) that the conceptual paper by Jake Lin and Minh Nguyen (Global Public Policy and Governance) addresses.

The Global Public Policy and Governance article (The Cycle of Commodification: Welfare, Migrant Labour and the Market in Global China and Vietnam) offers a novel analytical framework to understand welfare regimes as a social and political field that keeps evolving in response to the changing global valuation of labour. It indicates how the two countries’ distinctive regimes of migrant labour welfare are integral to a cycle of commodification that encompasses the overlapping processes of commodification, de-commodification and re-commodification of labour. The framework is helpful for understanding the transformations of welfare systems in connection with the mobility of labour not only in Vietnam and China but also in other contexts where industrial expansion has taken place on the basis of migrant labour from rural areas.

In general, the data we have collected are pointing towards a comparative picture of the dynamic linkages between labour mobility, welfare provision and changing configurations of social protection on the ground and at policy making level. These results help explain the systemic contradiction between the privatization drive and the socialist oriented notions of the good life in these "market socialist" countries, while revealing the particularities in the relationship between labour, government and the market of each country. They will also shed light on the diverse translocal strategies adopted by the migrant workers and their families to negotiate with state, market and civil institutions to access welfare.