Shopfloor industrial relations in a Chinese State Conglomerate : resistance and accommodation

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (no ISBN/ISSN)peer-review

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Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 31 Aug 2017


Title20th Annual Irish Academy of Management Conference, IAM 2017
LocationQueen’s University Belfast
PlaceUnited Kingdom
Period30 August - 1 September 2017


This paper examines the way work is organised and socialised for blue collar workers within one of the world’s largest Chinese conglomerates, which is state owned. The research shows how management reforms to increase efficiency in two work contexts are mediated by shop floor relations, which both facilities and resists such changes. First, the research revisits the ideas of core and periphery workers, but shows the commonly discussed urban – migrant divide explains only one aspect of this dualism. Employment of family members, also plays a part in the core – periphery management process. Second, whilst there is much current debate over rising levels of overt conflict in China, there are also more subtle forms of resistance and accommodation, or ‘working the system’ which are just as important in explaining developments in China’s.

Research was conducted at two locations within the internal production chain: an oil refinery located involved interviews and plant site visit and the petrol stations were researched through a combination of interviews and participate observation over two weeks. In each location, interviews focused on periphery workers, but also included several core workers, line supervisors and office administrative staff. In one location, a bitter strike had taken place, and so interviews included repeated interviews with a legal firm representing the striking workers. There were two distinct management strategies towards labour management within the firm, with the oil refinery focused on cost reductions and heavy monitoring and control of workers. He petrol stations in contrast were managed according to budgets and sales targets, but as this is a saturated market, sales growth was minimal. It would appear there were ample opportunities to exert a similar level of control as to that being used in the oil refinery, especially given the ease in employing lower paid migrant workers. However, prejudice and social demarcations (urban workers were trusted with the tills and enjoyed air conditioning compared to the migrant workers, who worked outside in all weathers). In contrast family relations, whereby causal labour was drawn from relatives of core, skilled workers. When the causal workers faced salary cuts and illegal deductions, the employer attempted to use family ties to quell protests with extremely conflictual results.

This research illustrates a complex set of power relations within the Chinese workplace, ones in which conflict and accommodation develop in ways we understand elsewhere. There are also particular aspects relevant to the development of China’s capitalism, which exist alongside the main academic interests in the treatment of migrant workers and of the rising level of strike activity. At its base, this research shows that peripheral workers are trying to work management systems to both benefit their collective identities within workplaces (whether it be taking turns to sleep on the job or force their supervisor to share bonuses evenly) and satisfy key performance criteria to keep the bosses happy. However, when confronted with hard-line management tactics, they are not shy to engage in bitter conflicts, even at great personal sacrifice.

Citation Format(s)

Shopfloor industrial relations in a Chinese State Conglomerate : resistance and accommodation. / TAYLOR, Bill; SHA, Xinlei.

2017. Paper presented at 20th Annual Irish Academy of Management Conference, IAM 2017, Belfast, United Kingdom.

Research output: Conference Papers (RGC: 31A, 31B, 32, 33)32_Refereed conference paper (no ISBN/ISSN)peer-review