Is global capitalism responsible for increasing precarious work around the globe, or is the rise of informal and precarious work a newly emerging trend in the West but a long-standing reality for the rest of the world? This article enters debates about precarious and informal work using the case of China, and in doing so, challenges our West/Rest binary. It shows how informal work in China is not a new phenomenon, but rather was the norm during China’s early industrialization, from 1898 to 1949. Even during the Maoist period, full-time standard employment under the danwei system was a privilege reserved for “urban” workers, in part made possible by a reliance on the rural population as a source of flexible labor. During the contemporary post-Mao period, not only has informal work flourished, so have other new forms of precarious work. However, while scholars of Chinese labor and labor politics have carefully documented the rise of precarious work and its impact on labor politics, informal precarious workers have remained largely invisible and are absent in most analyses. Expanding our framework in a way that includes rather than eliminates these workers from our analysis has significant ramifications for how we understand this historical moment. It suggests that there is increasing fragmentation of the working class, which calls into question the idea that China’s economic rise has created a new widespread industrial working class which can be expected to develop a unified class consciousness and challenge capital as it did in the West.
全球化的资本主义是否应对全球日益增长的不稳定工作负责?与日俱增的非正式和不稳定工作是否在西方世界是一个新兴的现象，然而在世界其他地方却是一个长存已久的事实？本文通过中国的案例介绍了关于不稳定和非正式工作的讨论，此做法也挑战了“我们西方”与“剩余世界”的二分法。它展示了中国的非正式工作并非一种新现象，而是在中国早期工业化阶段(从1898年到1949年)的范式。甚至在毛时期，在单位制系统下的全职的标准式雇佣制是为城市工人保存的特权，部分原因是由于他们依靠农村人口作为灵活劳动力的来源。在后毛泽东时期的当代，不仅非正式工作蓬勃发展，还产生了其他新形式的不稳定工作。虽然中国劳动和劳动政治学者已经详细论述了不稳定工人的兴起及其对劳工政治的影响，但是大量的非正式工人不为人们所知，在大多数的文献研究中也缺乏对此的论述。在分析当中，以包括而非剔除这些工人的方式去扩展研究框架对我们如何理解这个历史时刻意义深远。本文表明了工人阶级的日趋碎片化，挑战了这样一种想法，即：崛起的中国经济能产生具有统一阶级意识并能像西方工人阶级那样挑战资本的新的广泛的工人阶级。 (This article is in English.)
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Mosoetsa Stillerman and Tilly (2016) have identified these three different definitions of precarity in use by labor scholars which is helpful but also somewhat problematic. Specifically they suggest one of these definitions defines precarity as work that is “uncertain unpredictable and risky” and that this definition is shared by Arne Kalleberg Jan Breman and Marcel van der Linden (Mosoetsa Stillerman and Tilly 2016: 7). This is an interesting but uncomfortable grouping of scholars because their conceptualizations of precarious work beyond a narrow definition are quite different and on many dimensions and aspects of precarity they stand on opposite sides of heated debates.
See Huang (2013) for an excellent discussion of how the legal definition of labor has changed over time and as a result excludes informal and much of the emerging precarious work.
Zhou (2012) cites a 2006 World Bank report that estimated the range of informal workers to be between 116 and 155 million workers. Hu and Zhao (2006) also estimate the total to be around 155 million workers and Wu and Cai (2006) estimate it to be around 107 million workers excluding individual business owners or 120 million including the self-employed.