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Subordination at work : Chinese female domestic workers' struggles between silence and critical consciousness

Ellerman, Mei-Ling

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Within China's migrant underclass, millions of rural women struggle to earn a living through low-status, feminized, domestic work. While caretaking, cleaning, and cooking in urban homes, female migrant domestic workers often experience subordination including discrimination, poor and unjust treatment, and exploitation. Most workers comply in the face of subordination rather than openly resisting or negotiating for change. Although many have expressed feelings of anger and dehumanization, they...[Show more]

dc.contributor.authorEllerman, Mei-Ling
dc.date.accessioned2018-11-22T00:07:46Z
dc.date.available2018-11-22T00:07:46Z
dc.date.copyright2014
dc.identifier.otherb3600242
dc.identifier.urihttp://hdl.handle.net/1885/151290
dc.description.abstractWithin China's migrant underclass, millions of rural women struggle to earn a living through low-status, feminized, domestic work. While caretaking, cleaning, and cooking in urban homes, female migrant domestic workers often experience subordination including discrimination, poor and unjust treatment, and exploitation. Most workers comply in the face of subordination rather than openly resisting or negotiating for change. Although many have expressed feelings of anger and dehumanization, they often feel powerless to improve their situations, and cannot expect effective legal or civil protection in the near future. I seek to support potential change at the grassroots through my study of the broad range of factors that influences domestic workers' responses to subordination. My analysis, which employs critical ethnography and feminist research approaches, draws upon my qualitative semi-structured interviews, focus and discussion groups, life-history interviews and participant observation in Beijing. A small number of my informants have consistently advocated for themselves, so I compare the cases of those who remain silent with those of workers who have attained "critical consciousness," that is, who act upon their growing socio-political consciousness about the oppressive structures and relations that bind people like them and that contribute to their subjugation. It is not sufficient to attribute domestic workers' silent compliance to their lack of social and economic power in the workplace. Instead, I have developed an interdisciplinary analytical approach that explores a wide range of socio-cultural, socio-political and psychological factors, which influence how domestic workers understand and address their subordination. These factors are integral to the formation and practice of domestic workers' identities, morality and values, and responsibilities and understandings about power. Collectively, these in turn tend to discourage workers from acting against the norm and advocating for themselves. I also draw from theoretical discussions of gender, the mechanisms of power, social cognition, critical consciousness, and the moral process. This dissertation has departed from the literature on Chinese migrant workers and domestics in its contribution toward bottom-up change, and its multi-level approach which examines social, cultural and political forces that define and limit how workers can act; the involvement of their gender, work and ethical identities; the psychological and cognitive impact of subordination; and the role of workers' individualized moralities, motives and consciousness. Through my interdisciplinary approach, I demonstrate the silencing influence of their gendered life-histories, socio-cultural pressures, Chinese ethical discourses, and non-transformative forms of identity. I show how subordinating power can silence workers and elicit compliance, and how its psychological toll perpetuates their lack of voice. I also illustrate how domestic workers with voice have reached the point of self-advocacy. Despite sharing a similar background and work with silenced workers, these women possess critical differences regarding their self-identities, perceived ability to effect change, moral priorities, perspectives on power relations and socio-political consciousness. The explanations of how and why people resist subordination and act to reclaim personal power and dignity offer hope that, even without intervention, many of those subjected to multiple forms of oppression will no longer remain silent.
dc.format.extentvii, 237 leaves
dc.format.mimetypeapplication/pdf
dc.language.isoen_AU
dc.publisherCanberra, ACT : The Australian National University
dc.rightsAuthor retains copyright
dc.titleSubordination at work : Chinese female domestic workers' struggles between silence and critical consciousness
dc.typeThesis (PhD)
local.contributor.institutionThe Australian National University
local.description.notesThesis (Ph.D.)--Australian National University
local.description.refereedYes
dc.date.issued2014
local.type.statusAccepted Version
local.contributor.affiliationAustralian National University. Department of Political and Social Change
local.request.nameDigital Theses
local.identifier.doi10.25911/5d51419019a17
dc.date.updated2018-11-21T08:34:20Z
dcterms.accessRightsOpen Access
dc.provenance6.2.2020 - Made open access after no response from author re: extending restriction.
local.mintdoimint
CollectionsOpen Access Theses

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