Women Workers in China During the Covid-19 Pandemic

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This report offers an overview of the current social problems facing women workers in China in their work and life, with a key focus on the intersection of gender inequality and class inequality for women migrant workers. 

The literal meaning of the Chinese word “女工” is “woman worker”, but the term connotes a social class, that of a manual labor, as well as a sense of mobility between rural villages and cities for the women workers bouncing from one job to the next. Being a 女工 is both liberating and limiting. Opportunities to work in a city promise an escape, albeit a temporary one for many, from the rural social order and moral values that center the continuation of families, or more precisely, the prosperity of male family members. A journey into the city can be a transgression from this set path, a journey toward more opportunities for self-fulfillment. But at the same time, 女工 is a subject that bears what Pun Ngai described as the triple violence from the state, capital, and patriarchal relations. Such relations can manifest, respectively, as the rural household registration category that restricts the social resources available for female migrant workers; as manufacturing work requires that she sacrifices entire days and nights as well as the opportunity for personal growth; and as the social expectation to send her wages back to the village for her brother’s prosperity and the expectation to perform housework alongside wage work. Such unequal and restrictive relations have enormous power over women’s lives, but as shown in the narratives and actions of these female workers, it is not a process without questioning, negotiating and reshaping. 

In recent years, the growing, digital platform-based new economy has absorbed a large proportion of the labor force from manufacturing and other service industries, embedding many women workers in spaces with new forms of discipline as well as new conditions of autonomy.  At the same time, the impacts of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic have been hitting women workers, throwing many out of traditional jobs and into the gig economy where women can perform care and domestic labor alongside their gig work. 

While specifically focusing on rural women migrant workers, the contents of this text are not limited only to this specific population group, as the systemic problems examined here are similarly facing women of different class backgrounds, rural migrant workers, and gig workers in China and elsewhere, and their effects are not limited solely to rural female migrant workers. The report will also explore the resources and mechanisms available inside and beyond China that protect the human and labor rights of women workers in the era of a global pandemic. For readers who are interested in advocating for women workers’ rights in China, this report suggests fields for future actions and engagement.