(This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of SSA Magazine.)
In 2013, Haijing Dai, Assistant Professor of Social Work at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, spent six weeks working at an elders' home in Hangzhou, a city of 2.5 million on China's eastern coast. Dai, who has a PhD in social work and sociology from the University of Michigan, learned how to clean a room to the home's exacting standards, how to organize clothes in the proper way—darks in the front, lights in the back—and how to transfer a patient from bed to wheelchair in five simple steps. She also learned by observing and talking to her fellow workers—most of them middle-aged women—how China's efforts to turn marginally employable women into efficient modern workers were succeeding.
Dai's research reveals how women in one Chinese work place juggle the government's expectations, their boss's demands, and their own domestic responsibilities in a way that conforms only superficially to the ideal of the modern working woman—disciplined, productive, and ambitious.
Indeed, she found that instead of being transformed into modern workers the women she worked with quietly rebel against expectations, in part because the ideal does not fit their reality.
"Their lives are not only about work," Dai says. "They also have families."
Dai offers a rare glimpse into China's economic transformation and the difficulties that many women have in the new order.
Many women in re-employment programs had been employed in socialist-era enterprises but were laid off. Others who belonged to rural households lost their land and moved to cities, where they were often unemployed or underemployed.
The aim of the re-employment program is not just to teach new skills but to instill new attitudes and habits—a new work ethic. Speeches by officials and slogans directed at trainees promote independence, hard work, and competitiveness. Re-employment programs often lead to low paying work in service industries and small-scale manufacturing. Some women start businesses.
The main figure in Dai's account is a woman she calls Ding Xili, the successful owner of an elder home that employs graduates of a re-employment program. Dai and two graduate assistants received Xili’s permission to work in the home for their research. Ding Xili lost her job when her state-owned factory closed, but she has undergone re-employment training and embraced the message of hard work.
"If you want to change your circumstances, you need to change yourself first," she tells her employees.
Ding Xili imposes strict rules on her employees, but things often do not go by the book. When she is away or not looking, her employees adopt a more casual manner. They treat patients not with the professionalism she expects but more familiarly, as they would their own family members. They talk with each other about their families, help each other out, and develop a strong sense of "sisterhood." They slip out early to take care of parents or, in the case of one woman, a disabled child.
Often the women targeted by Chinese re-employment programs lack the support they need to become the kind of workers the programs envision. For example, the jobs they get are low status and poorly paid, so they do not earn enough to send their own parents to elder homes or to pay someone to take care of them. And there are not social programs to help them. Their working hours are inflexible, forcing them to sneak out when they are needed at home. Dai compares them to American women in the TANF program—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families—whose low paying jobs can leave them struggling with child care and other responsibilities.
"If you do not provide enough support, and you just push them into labor market participation, I think it will create similar problems," she says.
Dai, Haijing. "The Making of Modern Female Workers in Reemployment Programs in Post-Socialist China." Social Service Review, 90(2), pp. 235-263.