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Work and Pay in Small Chinese Clothing Firms: A Constrained Negotiated Order

[Min Li, South China University of Technology] and Paul Edwards  
Industrial Relations Journal, 39, 4, 296-313


Small clothing factories in China represent ideal conditions to find regimes characterised by market despotism. Yet studies of similar firms in other countries suggest that 'negotiated paternalism' is a better characterisation and that work relations have a large degree of cross-national similarity. Using interview data from seven small case firms and 63 employees in 12 small clothing firms in Guangdong province, this article finds important parallels with other countries in terms of pay system and negotiated order. Workers could negotiate relatively high wages, albeit at the cost of very long hours. This situation reflected booming economic conditions, a non-rationalised production system that left space for individual and informal collective bargaining, and close personal ties between workers and managers. Work relations in small firms are more nuanced than the sweatshop image allows, and extreme exploitation is more likely in Taylorised workplaces run by large corporations.