Comparative Analysis of Factory Girls and Korean Workers

ZHEYAN NI reviews Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China and Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation.

An inquiry has been occupying my mind for a long time: are journalists or scholars the better story tellers of a society? Contrasting the two books in this review helps us understand their differences in approach and effect.

Leslie Chang, the wife of famous China correspondent Peter Hessler, has been a China Watcher since the late 1990s. After Chang joined the Wall Street Journal, she travelled to Dongguan in 2004, a city known for its booming manufacturing industry in Guangdong Province. She spent her time living with and interviewing the local girls who made their livings as factory workers. Through extensive interviews with these girls about their work lives, family backgrounds, and life goals, Chang produced her award-winning book Factory Girls in 2008.

Factory Girls catches one’s attention through the carefully chosen perspective in this book: using the individuals’ viewpoints. As Chang noted in an interview, she wanted to tell “individual stories and depict the experience of migration from the workers’ points of view.”

Since the reform and opening up policies enacted in 1978, China has gone through the largest labor migration in history. Over 100 million village dwellers left their hometowns to work in cities, finding urban jobs from cleaning street public restrooms to sitting at office desks in private corporations. As the most significant driving force of China’s urbanization and economic development, migrant workers have been chronicled in voluminous articles and scholarly research. Existing reports reveal the grueling conditions: low hourly wages, constant overtime, cramped and prison-like dormitory space, and scandals of workers suicide.

However, these harsh facts are not the primary focus in Factory Girls. Chang forsakes the typical Marxist critique of capitalist exploitation of laborers; instead, using powerful first-person narratives, she captures the promising opportunities presented to these factory girls, facilitated by urbanization and capitalization of economy, to eschew the stifling predictability and impoverished living conditions of village life. Factory life has enabled an alternative for living: girls doubled and even tripled their income by assembling Nike shoes and Coach handbags. Some were ambitious enough to take classes to learn computer skills and English in order to find better paying jobs. Dongguan, though a chaotic and cruel city, has afforded numerous channels to change the life prospects of a new striver.

In contrast with a journalist’s individual-focused perspective, sociologist Hagen Koo adopts a social-class approach. Koo abandons any theoretical analysis or framework, instead choosing to reinterpret first-hand sources and interviews in easy-to-understand class terms. While Chang is trying to animate the “present” status of working women in China, Koo is interested in addressing the “changing” condition of female laborers that has given rise to the formation of sisterhood, religious affiliation, and collective action in protests and reforms in 1970s and 80s Korea. Chang conveyed an implied message suggesting that “workers in China are both suffering from and taking the advantage of the market of cheap labor and let me tell you why they do not rebel.” In a comparative approach, Koo clearly wants to find out why and how workers in South Korea rebelled.

Koo addresses two key issues in regards to the Korean workers’ rebellion: How did female workers form a social class and a class consciousness? Furthermore, how did this social class gain momentum in labor reforms?

In answering the first question, Koo looks into several unique challenges surrounding Korean female workers who are, mostly, single women: the particularly draining work requirement (12 hours a day), militarized and patriarchal management system (corporal punishment), and social stigmatization of manual labor. As a result, as Koo argues, these circumstances imposed overwhelming conflicts and hatred between workers and factory owners, therefore forcing workers to proletarianize themselves. There was also a gender component: the management level was mostly composed of males. They often mobilized male workers to resist female workers’ unionization efforts, which further exacerbated the worker-capitalist hostility. This process, however, never occurred in China because such strictly militarized management systems did not exist in the chaotically organized and constantly turning-over small factories and workshops.

Koo also underlines another important condition for class formation. Demographically speaking, these Korean female workers were highly homogeneous. The majority were unmarried women in their early 20s who came from adjacent village neighborhoods and spread across different factories. They also shared similar socioeconomic backgrounds and life experiences. This factor facilitated these workers to mobilize across geographic boundaries and shaped a shared class consciousness.

To explore the momentum of labor reforms, Koo examines the process in which female worker protesters collaborated with existing well-organized institutions, including churches and student activist organizations, to publicize their hardships, struggles, and objectives. In fact, the initial waves of workers’ rebellions were highly emotional, violent, disorganized, and short-lived. Nevertheless, in the early 1980s, as more students, intellectuals, and political activists became well versed in Marxist thought and left-liberalism, they joined workers’ unionization effort and endorsed workers’ protests. Workers began to raise more specific demands and learned to coalesce with targeted social groups in order to achieve their agendas. In this process, female workers transformed from a “social class” to a “political class” capable of self-governance and mass collective actions.

By contrast, unlike Korean female workers, there is virtually no demographic homogeneity among Chinese migrant workers: they come from a wide range of impoverished villages in provinces spread across the entire country and speak dramatically different dialects. Furthermore, migrant workers (regardless of gender) in China have long been an isolated social group disconnected from urban elements. They are deprived of access to urban household registration, medical insurance coverage, and other social welfare benefits. Because of the underdeveloped civil society in China, there are no available institutional resources, such as churches and civil activists in the case of South Korea, that migrant workers can leverage in order to mobilize themselves and organize collective actions.

Apart from differing social conditions, the mentalities of Chinese migrant workers are also dissimilar. While Korean female workers regarded themselves as “trapped” in harsh labor exploitation, Chinese female workers viewed the current working condition as a “temporary” ladder to brighter life prospects. For unmarried factory girls, their current jobs afforded them chances to accumulate savings, to learn new skills, and even to find a promising partner to settle down with in the city. For married female workers, their jobs are essential in improving their family life—i.e., supporting their children’s education and aging parents back in the village town.

These two books provide inspiring evidence for us to understand the divergent circumstances of female migrant workers in China and South Korea during the era of fast-growing capitalist economies. In this regard, Chang and Koo crack open a wide array of macro socioeconomic issues by an extraordinary glimpse into small clues of lives of those individuals experiencing these societal changes. While Chang, as a journalist, lets her subjects voice themselves, Koo, as a sociologist, essentially encapsulates her subjects with his social class analytical framework and cultural and political considerations. Both offer thought-provoking analyses and vivid individual voices to examine the women migrant workers behind social and economic changes in East Asia.

Zheyan Ni can be contacted at

Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China
Authored by Leslie Chang, former correspondent for the Wall Street Journal
Spiegel & Grau, 2009.

Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation
Authored by Sociologist Hagen Koo
Cornell University Press, 2001.

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