Chinese Migrant Women Workers in a Dormitory Labour System by Pun Ngai

11. May 2009

Under the Chinese dormitory labour regime the lives of women migrant workers are shaped by the international division of labour. The dormitory labour system is a gendered form of labour use to fuel global production in new industrialized regions, especially in South China. The system also forms the basis for the development of class consciousness and alternative struggles for labour rights.       

China is well known as a ‘world factory’, attracting transnational corporations (TNCs) from all over the world, especially from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, USA, and Western Europe. Rapid expansion of export-oriented production has led to a sharp rise in jobs in private, foreign-owned, and joint-venture enterprises that dot the coastal cities of China. The formation of a new working class of internal rural migrant labourers, in contrast to the Maoist working-class, has been taking shape in contemporary China. The Fifth National Population Census of China in 2000, estimated that there were over 120 million internal migrant workers in cities, and today the estimates range from 130 to 200 million persons.



Since the early 1990s the development of special economic zones and technology development zones across China, similar to the development in most other developing economies, was based on a massive harnessing of young workers, in particular of unmarried women, who are often the cheapest and most compliant labour (Lee 1998). These women migrant workers – dagongmei – constitute a new gendered labour identity, produced at the particular moment when private and transnational capital emerged in post-socialist China. As a newly coined term, dagongmei embraces multi-layered meanings and denotes a new kind of labour relationship fundamentally different from those of Mao’s period. Da-gong means “working for the boss” or “selling labour”, which connotes commodification and a capitalist exchange of labour for wages (Pun 2005). It is a new concept that stands in contradiction to Chinese socialist history. Labour, especially alienated (wage) labour, supposedly emancipated with the Chinese revolution, is again sold to the capitalists, and this time under the auspices of the state. In contrast to the term gongren, worker, which carried the highest status in the socialist rhetoric of Mao’s day, the new word dagong signifies a lesser identity – that of a hired hand – in a new context shaped by the rise of market factors in labour relations and hierarchy. Mei means younger sister. It denotes not merely gender, but also marital status – mei is unmarried and young, and thus often of a lower status.

These rural migrants are identified as temporary residents who work in a city and who lack a formal urban household registration (hukou). The hukou system, which is still mostly in place, now helps to create exploitative mechanisms of labour appropriation in the cities. The maintenance of the distinction between permanent and temporary residents by the hukou system facilitates the state’s shirking of its obligation to provide housing, job security, and welfare to rural migrant workers. China’s overall economy, while it needs the labour of the rural population, does not need the city-based survival of that population once demand for rural-to-urban migrants’ labour power shifts in either location or emphasis. This newly forming working class is permitted to form no permanent roots and legal identities in the city. Still worse, the hukou system, with its labour controls, constructs the ambiguous identity of rural migrant labour and simultaneously deepens and obscures the economy’s exploitation of this huge population. Hence, this subtle and multi-faceted marginalization of a vast swath of the rural labour supply has created a contested, if not a deformed, citizenship that has disadvantaged Chinese migrant workers attempting to transf
orm themselves into urban workers. The Chinese term mingong (‘peasant-workers’ or temporary workers) blurs the lines of identity between peasant and worker.


Since the set-up of four economic special zones in South China in the early 1980s, the new export-oriented industrialized regions dominated by foreign-invested companies have witnessed a systemic use of the dormitory labour system. The foreign-invested companies, irrespective of their industrial sectors, all have to provide accommodation to their workers in order to keep their laborers. Combining work and residence under the dormitory labour system, production and daily reproduction are hence reconfigured for the sake of global capital use, with daily reproduction of labour entirely controlled by foreign-invested or privately owned companies.

This dormitory labour system regime in China is not a new arrangement under capitalism. The dormitory use for labour has a long history both in a western or eastern context of industrialization (Pun and Smith, 2007). However the Chinese dormitory labour system is unique in the way that dormitories are available to all workers and industries regardless of factory conditions. The widespread availability of industrial dormitories not only constrain the mobility of labour, it also facilitates it. The distinctive nature of the Chinese dormitory labour system is also for short-tenure migrant labour within the factory compound or close to it. In China, the state still plays a very substantial role in shaping labour markets, regulating labour mobility from rural to urban industrial areas and providing housing accommodation to migrant workers. In most of the newly industrial towns, the Chinese state initially provides the dormitories for the factory owners to rent. As housing provision is not for families, there is no interest from capital in the reproduction of the next generation of labourers. The focus is on maximizing the utilization of labour of the temporary, migrant, and contract labourer by controlling the daily reproduction of their labour power.

The political economy of providing accommodation close to the factory is the linkage it supports between state and the capital. Since the migrant working class is deprived of citizenship rights to stay in the city, the state through residency controls allows labour mobility, but workers must have employment to support temporary residence. Dormitories facilitate the temporary attachment or capture of labour by the companies, but also the massive circulation of labour, and hence the holding down of wages and the extensive lengthening of the working day, as working space and living space are integrated by the employer and state. A hybrid, transient workforce is created, circulating between factory and countryside, dominated by employers’ control over housing needs and state controls over residency permits.

One characteristic of China’s foreign-invested manufacturing plants is the housing of migrant workers in dormitories attached to or close to a factory’s enclosed compound. On finishing their labour contracts on average after one to two years, the  workers must return to the place of birth or find another temporary employment contract (Solinger 1999), again to be confined in the dormitory labour regime. Factory dormitories thus attach migrant workers for short-term capture, and accommodation does not function for the long-term or protracted relationship between the individual firm and the individual worker, which is the rationale for accommodation in other paternalistic factory forms such as Japan which can be life-long.

Management within the foreign-invested or privately owned companies would appear to have exceptional controls over the workforce under the system. With no access to a home space independent of the enterprise, working days are extended to suit production needs. Compared to the ‘normal’ separation between work and home that usual factory arrangements entail, the dormitory labour regime exerts greater breadth of control into the working and non-working day of the workers.

Gender is central to this specific embodiment of Chinese dormitory labour system and the formation of the transient working class. For the past two decades, among the exodus of internal migrant workers into the industrial cities, young women are among the first to be picked up by the new export-oriented industries. Young women constitute a high proportion of the factory workers, above 70% of the total workforce in garments, toys and electronics industries (Lee, 1998; Pun, 2005). Their gender, in addition to their youth and rural migrant status, is an integral part of China’s export-led industrialism facilitating global production for the world market.

As sites of control and resistance, the dormitory labour system simultaneously provides workers the opportunities to resist management practices and achieve some victories in improving working conditions. Ultimately, the ability of workers to fundamentally challenge the conditions of work and dormitory living is limited by the temporary nature of the employment contracts and their disempowered status as temporary urban residents.

A new working class consciousness

I have argued that employers’ use of dormitory labour, which has linked itself to both labour migration and daily labour reproduction, serves global production by generating hidden and therefore largely invisible costs borne by the migrant women workers. The situation has deteriorated further now that local governments within China compete for foreign investment and thus openly neglect the labour regulations and the social provisions implemented by China’s local, provincial, and national governments. The costs of daily labour reproduction are largely undertaken by the dormitory regime, which subsidizes the living cost of labour in terms of wages, accommodation, and consumption. The labour reproduction of the dormitory regime has sustained cheap labour in China over the past two decades.

Hence, the systemic provision of dormitories for internal migrant labour facilitates the continuous access to fresh labour reserves from the countryside. The dormitory labour regime concentrates labour, nurturing workers’ consciousness in face of acute exploitation by capital; but as high circulation of labour power of a transitory semi-proletarianised class, it also inhibits the workers to stay stable enough within one place or space, to form a continuous working-class community. No doubt the dormitory labour regime in concentrating and yet circulating labour between capitals creates a powerful production regime to spatially contain the formation of a new working class, but dialectically also becomes a bedrock for nurturing acute class consciousness and facilitating class actions in the future.

The battle for this new working class requires both struggles against capital and state. Against state, the migrant workers have to launch an urban citizenship rights struggle in order to gain the right to settle down in the industrial cities and towns and create their own working-class community. Against capital, the workers need to look for alternative way of organizing since traditional trade union struggle is not effective, if not allowed, in a dormitory labour regime in China. Dormitory-based organizing along the line of gender helping generate sisterhood solidarity among workers hopefully will be one of the alternative struggles.