Chinese Human Resource Practices at the Firm Level: The Migrant Worker Issue

Christopher Smith, Alicia Leung

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China is in transition. As such it contains a diversity of practices; residues from the past exist alongside modern, global ways of working and managing. This is very evident if we look at the question of recruitment, retention, labour turnover and labour mobility within the firm. This paper draws upon a case study of HR practices from a Jewellery factory in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, which we call JEWELLERY-CO. It argues that managers have, compared with the situation in the State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), expanded their power over labour hiring and firing. That following established Western practice, decisions on selection, internal labour allocation and labour retention are largely made at the enterprise level, by managers acting autonomously, free from state or worker direction. Interviews with managers reveal a strong desire to maintain this local power. Power is exercised through the short-term nature of employment contracts, housing of migrant workers in industrial dormitories, a graded wage system, fines and deposits to retain labour and both a paternalistic and directive or authoritarian management style. Yet such powers do not go unchallenged and are partial, with the autonomy of management constrained by several forces. Firstly, local state actors can place employees in the firm, using “political guanxi”, or connections. Managers are unable or unwilling to refuse workers referred through these elite, politicised channels. Secondly, worker-referred networks of recruitment continue to operate to place workers in the firm, despite the formal opposition of senior management to such connection-based forms of recruitment. Thirdly, kin-ethnic and work-based forms of referral can operate to distribute workers internally, acting against formal principles of merit or ability based allocation to which senior management formally subscribe. Finally, workers can express opposition through ‘wild-cat’ industrial action, which while rare, nevertheless periodically reminds management that there is an H in HRM, and that workers cannot be treated as disposable and replaceable resources.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages40
Publication statusPublished - 8 Aug 2008

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