Nellie Chu is an assistant professor of anthropology at Duke Kunshan University, a partnership between Duke University and Wuhan University in Kunshan, China.
GUANGZHOU, China — As I walked through the narrow alleyways of the garment district here in China’s third-largest city one afternoon, I saw a woman I’ll call Wong Yip sitting beside a large worktable by the tall front gates of her factory. In 2012, Wong Yip and her husband, who I’ll call Wong Zi, moved here from neighboring Guangxi Province to experiment in the risks and rewards of entrepreneurship. They own and operate their own small-scale industrial workshop, colloquially known as a jiagongchang, situated in a garage-like den that facilitates the mass assembly of low-cost garments bound for transnational traders and ultimately exported as fast fashion to overseas markets around the globe.
With her eyes cast downward, she took a stack of thick elastic bands and placed them beside a ruler before cutting them into narrow strips. Piles of carefully measured loose fabric strands gathered on the table in front of her. I sat on a wooden stool beside her and said hello. She returned a smile, but it looked tired and forced, seeming to hide a flood of emotion brewing inside of her. When I told her I had the next few days off from teaching, she remarked how wonderful a scholarly life must be.
A lanky man in a white t-shirt and fitted khaki pants cropped right above his ankles emerged out of the factory and stood beside me. Wong looked up at him and spoke angrily. “You must understand,” she said, “it takes money to pay for the electricity and to pay our workers. … We’ve been waiting for over a month now and you owe us more than 10,000 RMB. We refuse to hand over the finished garments until you pay us the money!”
The young man stood still and silent in front of her. Apparently, his South Korean client was falling behind on his bills. Delays in meeting fashion deadlines and payments had left him in a spiral of debt and loss. Wong seemed to hardly care. “I’m going to call your relatives and your clients,” she yelled at him. “When I do, they better come up with the money. If they fail to pay, believe me, we will send my husband directly to your store. We will close it down and demand a payment. We know exactly where you do business. Don’t think we’re not capable of doing this!” When she finally stopped her tirade, the young man bowed his head several times, a gesture of apology and shame.
After he departed, Wong turned to me. “I had my suspicions about them from the first moment I cast my eyes upon them,” she said. She told me they came from Xi Fang Hang, the wholesale market for low-cost garments in Guangzhou that was infamous for shady business. But they begged and pushed, Wong said. Eventually, as she put it, “They forced us into a working relationship.”
I asked her if she and her husband really would go to their store and demand the money if they still didn’t pay. “Of course!” she responded. The people who work at that market are known to be very aggressive, I warned her. Indignantly, she replied that she and her husband were equally capable of being pushy.
Over the past two decades, there has been a rise in scholarly critiques of fast fashion that have exposed the dark side of producing and consuming low-cost, designer-inspired garments and accessories. These critiques frequently center on the problems of climate change, sweatshop labor, unethical knockoffs and cultural appropriation: the nefarious effects of low-cost, disposable fashions characteristic of post-Fordist, “just in time” capitalism.
My research focuses on the edges of that world: In southern China, a discrete yet unrecognized realm has opened where migrants own their own factories, declare themselves “boss” and enjoy limited social and physical mobility. Their so-called freedom, however, is characterized by infrequent and short-term successes, since their small-scale entrepreneurial activities feed into transnational outsourcing arrangements that continuously exploit and extract their labor through unforgiving competition and unpredictable work rhythms.
I call these experiences of small-scale migrant entrepreneurship “bosshood.” It illustrates one crucial aspect of fast fashion that often gets elided from popular images and accounts of transnational “just in time” commodity exchange. Fast fashion, and by extension transnational capitalism from the 1990s to today, would not have flourished at a global scale without the work of migrant subcontractors who have taken on precarious living and laboring conditions.
These experiences leave them hovering in an ambiguous and ambivalent space somewhere between the sweatshop laborer and the globe-trotting entrepreneur — similar to what the anthropologist Aihwa Ong calls the “astronaut,” a legitimate entrepreneur who displays his wealth by shuttling between his business activities in Hong Kong or China and his family in other parts of the globe. Within this in-between space, the migrant laoban (boss) links post-socialist urban transformations in China to the transnational supply chains of fast fashion.
The Rise Of The Migrant Boss
Along the hidden corridors and narrow alleyways of Guangzhou’s garment district, clusters of jiagongchang serve the transnational supply chains for fast-fashion production and exchange. Here, market participants construct, contest and negotiate the spatial and temporal boundaries of low-cost, designer-inspired fashions as they transform raw materials and everyday objects into the newest styles and trends. This household-based model of mass manufacture in Guangzhou uses simple second-hand machines to compete with the performance-driven and advanced technologies of fast-fashion production in larger Fordist-type factories in southern China.
According to the hukou, a policy of population control left over from the Maoist period, migrant jiagongchang workers are members of the liudong renkou (floating population), a group whose legal status excludes them from critical state benefits in the cities they’ve migrated to, including housing, education, healthcare and employment. These exclusions bind them to low-paying jobs with oppressive labor conditions in the manufacturing and service industries, thereby creating one of the world’s largest pools of exploitable low-wage labor. At the same time, their participation in global supply chains for fast fashion fuels their desires for personal autonomy via entrepreneurship and self-employment.
“Just in time” subcontracted manufacturing lowers production costs for intermediary wholesalers and retailers while offsetting the associated risks of environmental pollution, labor disputes, accidents, capital flight and bankruptcy to other participants across the chain. Such methods of temporal and corporeal management separate production sites across global supply chains so that each jiagongchang becomes a specialized node in a wider network. The fragmentation of these sites enables migrants to drift from one jiagongchang to another, while those who have enough savings to own and operate their own can experiment with the risks and rewards of self-enterprise.
In effect, many migrant bosses, along with the temporary workers they hire, paradoxically describe their labor as “free” despite long hours, low wages and precarious working conditions. Every day, they encounter the people, images and objects of worldly fashions. Standing in the shadows of larger factories, many imagine themselves as socially mobile. Few know precisely where the commodities they produce end up, and they would be unable to travel there even if they did. But their encounters with fabrics and colors and styles on the shop floor fuel a curiosity and desire to explore the world.
At the same time, however, they must negotiate the risks and contradictions associated with the conditions of their immobility and displacement. Many workers, especially female sewers organized along the assembly lines of garment mass manufacture, can only imagine the wholesale markets where the garments are sold and the relatively well-to-do consumers who buy them. They are stuck in their nodes on the supply chain, bound by the uneven rhythms of fast-fashion production, able only to collaborate and negotiate with other migrant laborers and clients as dictated by the demands of transnational outsourcing.
Everyday Uncertainties In The Jiagongchang
The Wongs’ business has brought them a limited sense of personal autonomy. But they realize they have minimal control over the timing of the production processes. Unforgiving deadlines, intensified by the rapid turnover of fashion styles, confine both employers and employees to their sewing stations on the factory floor.
I’ve often seen both Wongs labor alongside their employees for hours during the day and night, even as they juggle other tasks like coordinating materials, workers and machines. Conflicts between employers and employees often arise directly through failures of the production process itself, which occur when machines halt, materials go missing or workers talk back or refuse to work.
When production is at full scale, the pace of work is difficult to control. This is particularly the case when the Wongs’ clients are intermediary brokers for overseas wholesalers. These brokers often adjust production details — positioning of logos, tags, printing stock numbers, adding or eliminating embellishments and accessories, changing fabrics and materials — according to the whims of their fickle clients. These details can upend the pace and conditions of labor for the Wongs and their workers.
Before the start of the pandemic, the Wongs typically received orders from walk-in clients, many of whom happened to stumble upon the factory. These clients would usually have an arrangement for raw materials and fabrics with their wholesale clients in place and would coordinate delivery to the Wongs’ factory. The Wongs would then assemble their work teams based on the number of hands needed per order.
Sometimes this necessitated calls to family and friends. Wong Zi’s older brother operates a larger garment factory in the neighborhood, so he would send workers over if he can spare them. Another brother is an ironer nearby, and sometimes he and his wife would lend a hand. In the past, Wong Yip has invited family friends from her home village in Guangxi to live and work with the couple for several months at a time. There was a small chalkboard that hung by the front gate of their factory where Wong Yip posts hiring notices. Other times, she would walk over a nearby pedestrian bridge to an area where unemployed workers gather to look for temporary work.
Last-minute orders sometimes arrive in the late afternoon, sending workers scrambling to complete their tasks. Periods of sustained intensity are broken by long intervals of waiting or unemployment. Unexpected idleness becomes a source of financial concern. Once, during a quiet week between orders, I suggested to Wong Yip that she catch up on sleep. “You don’t know what it’s like in our line of work,” she responded. “We can’t take breaks because we don’t know where our money will come from.”
Frequently, Wong Zi joins his employees at a client’s larger factory to complete a job or redo a botched order. Wong Yip, meanwhile, will spend most of her working day laboring alongside her employees on the factory floor. She will jump up and assume the role of a manager when walk-in clients enter the factory to discuss an order. Disagreements with her employees over the quality of their work can arise, leading to arguments and departures. Similarly, Wong Yip will sometimes have to fight those further up the supply chain over missed deadlines and garment quality.
The sensitive coordination of clients, workers and raw materials forms the limits to the Wongs’ autonomy. As bosses of their labor and means of production, they are no longer subject to the constant surveillance and managerial control of larger factories. Yet the uneven temporal pulses and makeshift factory spaces characteristic of fast and flexible production of low-cost garments intensify the extraction of labor, while creating a surplus of available workers when the pace of market activity slackens.
Even though the Wongs refer to themselves as bosses, I often see them working alongside their hired workers at least 10-12 hours a day. They are frequently abandoned by clients who owe them money. Workers will storm off the factory floor in the middle of a production order when they disagree with the terms of their temporary employment. When I ask the couple about their plans for their future, they simply say, “We don’t know. Next year, we may be here. Maybe not. We just don’t know how the market will be.”
Worldy Aspirations, Uncertain Bosshoods
The pandemic brought new uncertainties. Several competitors in the garment district closed their businesses, but the Wongs have managed to survive by living on marginal profits. To save money, they moved their factory to an area where rents are cheaper. But visiting it recently, I thought it would make them even more isolated and precarious than before.
On a busy street lined with apartment complexes and grocery stores, their new workshop is on the second floor of a dilapidated concrete building. It occupies the entire floor — plenty of space, but dark and musty. Only a single window that overlooks the rooftop of an adjacent building allows in a delicate ray of sunlight.
Immediately below the window, a small grocery store blasts a piercing recording of a man announcing the deals of the day in an endless loop. Opposite the wall with the small window are the sewing machines. Their younger son sat at a workstation, head down, working diligently on an order of brightly colored fuchsia dresses. In a corner, the Wongs had set up a twin-sized bed for themselves. Just next to it was the stove and bathroom where they cooked, bathed and washed their clothes.
As I walked in, Wong Zi was cooking on the stove — stir-fried greens, black bean fish, Hainanese chicken. I looked around. Prominent, white, Roman-style columns graced the back wall next to the son’s sewing station. Ragged pieces of white and pink lace hung from the low ceiling, swaying in front of an air conditioning unit. I realized that the space had formerly served as a bridal photography studio, which potentially had fallen victim to the economic downturn brought by COVID-19.
We sat down for lunch. The Wongs were in the process of finishing up an order for an agent who lived overseas and handled orders exclusively for African markets. The dresses strewn across the dingy concrete floor were bound for a Congolese client. Wong Zi lamented that they could no longer rely on walk-in clients, a critical source of income and informal marketing at their former workshop. Shopping trips for fabric and accessories or searches for temporary workers had become longer now that they were outside the garment district.
They seemed ambivalent about their new challenges. New orders were still coming in, keeping them afloat. Most were for African markets, which meant that their profit margins were exceedingly low, primarily because of exorbitant shipping costs amid the pandemic, as well as the many intermediaries across the supply chains through which the commodities passed.
In the early years of their operation, the Wongs focused on overseas rather than domestic orders. But the disruptions to the world’s fast-fashion supply chains caused by the pandemic made orders from distant clients much more difficult. With the Chinese border effectively closed, and with the presence of foreigners in Guangzhou’s fashion markets shrinking, many of the Wongs’ competitors turned to domestic clients to survive financially.
Some had the manpower and resources to manufacture garments extremely quickly, thus meeting the needs of “just in time” deliveries. Others, however, had no choice but to take on the risks of being exploited by domestic clients, who demanded faster turnaround time for deliveries at even lower costs. The Wongs refused, hoping the overseas markets would turn around.
To me, they seemed stuck in an endless condition of stalled mobility. Their profits were fractions of what they had been before the pandemic. But they were hanging on, hoping for the more lucrative orders from Japan, South Korea and the U.S. to return after the global economy recovers. In the meantime, they were exhausting themselves working longer hours with fewer employees.
As I was leaving the factory, I suggested to Wong Yip that we could perhaps see each other again later in the week, at times when she needed to buy groceries or go out for walks. She regretfully admitted that she hardly went out for walks since they had moved into their new workshop. Tight deadlines and long hours made it difficult for her to schedule a meeting in advance. I sensed a degree of loneliness and isolation in her voice. “Meet us again in Guangzhou or in Guigang [their hometown],” she said. “You are family to us now. We may be apart, but in our hearts, you are our family!”
Guigang is a city of perhaps 4 million people a couple of hours west of Guangzhou. If the Wongs are forced to close their factory and return there, their aspirations for worldliness, financial security, social mobility and entrepreneurship would end. Back in Guigang, they would have to return to low-paying wage work in larger factories run by more powerful and exploitative people. They would no longer be their own bosses.
Laboring in Guangzhou’s delipidated industrial zone paradoxically facilitated a platform for the Wongs to extend their productive capacities to global markets. As bosses of a node in a global network of fashion products, they were connected to a world beyond the reach of many Chinese. And yet, their very participation in the transnational supply chain left them isolated and more uncertain about their future than before.
For them, staying on the treadmill of long hours for little pay in the hopes of stepping up the social ladder from migrants toward possibilities outside China’s borders meant more than any economic returns. Like the fuchsia dresses bound for the wholesale markets in West Africa, they aspired to move up the supply chain, to seek higher profit margins and bigger clients. But fulfilling those dreams depended on economic and political forces that remained entirely outside their control.