In June 2012, Wu began conducting fieldwork at a high-end retail supermarket in Beijing, “China-Mart.” The store was operated by a domestically owned chain, one of the most profitable in China. The outlet hosting Wu was mid-sized, at 35,000 ft2. It employed 125 workers, 45 of whom were urban-born with the rest migrating from rural regions of Henan and nearby provinces. Wu gained permission to conduct research through a friend who was an executive in the firm. During the first two weeks of the fieldwork, Wu labored 8 h in each of the store’s seven departments. After this Wu worked an additional nine weeks in each of two sections of the store that were most salient to questions about rural-urban interactions. The first was the Chinese Cuisine section, which employed eight male migrant workers, supervised by a female also a rural migrant. The second was the Customer Service (CS) section staffed entirely by urbanites, two men and three women. These employees worked under two supervisors, one of each gender. Each day, Wu worked 5 h in each department. Like her colleagues, she labored ten-h days, six days a week. Wu also participated in employee orientations, training courses, and staff meetings in each department. She spent many off-work hours socializing with co-workers, joining in two retirement parties, a birthday party, shopping excursions, and poker games. Throughout, she recorded observations, jotting down notes during the activities day and then fully recording from memory the events once at home.
Wu also conducted a total of 51 in-depth, semi-structured interviews (using Mandarin) with 14 urban employees, 12 managers, and 25 rural-migrant workers. Interviews lasted between 20 min and 1.5 h, taking place in kitchens, canteens, the Customer Service desk, and stairwells, either after working hours or during meal breaks. With the interviewees’ consent, 30 interviews were recorded on audiotape. Questions covered work experience, method of job acquisition, skills development, living situation, and perceptions of other store workers and customers as well as plans for the future. Wu asked migrant workers questions about their rural homes, frequency of return, and how and why they located to Beijing. All names used in this paper have been changed to pseudonyms.
To analyze the data, we used an inductive approach, coding field notes and interviews by theme. Through the coding processwe found that when interviewees were asked to describe their own work they tended to invoke other workers in comparison. These distinctions with others were a repetitive theme throughout both urban and migrant workers’ narratives. Having identified this analytic theme, we select segments of data relevant to different dimensions of the work process.
The state, migration, and quality
Since the founding of the People's Repbulic of China, the state has played a pivotal role in structuring inequality (Bian 1994). In the Mao period (1949–1978), urbanites and rural farmers were spatially segregated through the hukou or household registration system, created in 1957 to bar individuals from moving from their place of birth. The policy relegated the peasantry to agricultural labor in collectives, while the urban-born worked in state-owned factories and other institutions, where they received substantial benefits not available to the peasantry (Walder 1988). With the advent of market reforms in the 1980s, rural people were allowed to travel for work in foreign-invested factories on the Southeast Coast, drawing. The policy shift promped a massive supply of rural labor to migrate these workplaces (Pun 2005). The new hukou rules allowed peasants only temporary sojourn in cities and excluded them from urban citizenship. On a practical level, this meant they were ineligible for health insurance and housing subsidies, and often exempted from labor laws, while their children were barred from urban schools (Solinger 1999).Footnote 2 As the country developed its mammoth export manufacturing sector, urban employers and local governments escaped these obligations to their migrant workers. This both minimized the costs of proletarianization and reproduced a sharp structural divide between urban and migrant workers. Employers sequestered migrants in factory compounds, assigning them to on-site dormitories. Thus, contact with urbanites was quite limited.
Eventually the growth of the service industry began to narrow the spatial proximity between rural and urban people (Otis 2011). Substantial increases in disposable household income laid the groundwork for a consumer service sector that has generated millions of urban jobs. As employment in China's service sector overtook manufacturing, many migrant workers also opted to work in services. By 2013 services absorbed more migrants than manufacturing (Lu and Xia 2016;22). According to Qu and Jing 2016: "Between 2012 and 2015, the total number of migrant workers in the manufacturing sector declined by nearly 7 million, compared with an increase of 5 million in the three biggest services sectors (ie wholesale and retail, residential services, transportation and logistics)" (2016; 4). Migrants and urbanites now work in the same firms, especially in large retail chains that dominate the urban commercial landscape (Otis 2011b).
Meanwhile, through the media and the Communist Party’s vast network of members, the state circulated a discourse on "suzhi" encouraging educational attainment and adherence to social norms associated with urban models of civility. Commonly translated as “quality,” suzhi refers to physical, intellectual, and moral cultivation of individuals (Anagnost 2004; Sun 2009; Yan 2008). The discourse supplanted Maoist ideologies emphasizing class conflict with a liberal-meritocratic framing of inequalities. The term is used to legitimate intense competition in the educational system and labor market and to promote national development cultivation Suzhi can be likened to human capital, but the term contains a moral valence not implied by the economistic phrase. Another candidate translation for suzhi might be cultural capital, but unlike cultural capital, suzhi is used in everyday conversation by individuals to assess themselves and others.
xSuzhi has become a cultural filter in daily interaction (Murphy 2004; Yan 2008). It is frequently used to point out the deficiencies of others. Kipnis comments, “When an urbanite points at an unfashionably dressed migrant and says to his friend ‘such low quality,’ he links the specificity of the quality of migrant’s dress with her overall physical/mental/moral quality” (2006:207). In this way class disinctions become moral imperatives. Suzhi can also be a weapon of the weak. For example, Otis has heard suzhi used to contest the status of nouveau riche who have wealth but not education, or low suzhi (Otis 2011). All told, suzhi can be understood as a discourse that helps usher nominal characteristics into status characteristics (Ridgeway 2014). That said, when suzhi claims are posed, in all likelihood, those possessing greater educational and social capital will win the day (Kipnis 2006; Sun 2009). In the data analysis ahead, we show the utility of suzhi to workplace boundary formation.
Administrative boundaries: division of labor and space
One of dozens of shops and boutiques inserted into an upscale, Beijing mall, China-Mart serves customers from middle- to high-income brackets, most of whom work at firms nearby. The store’s décor is sparse yet warm: honey-hued wooden floors surround mosaic tile laid to define the space of separate departments. The walls are soaked in rich tones. White paper-like lanterns hang from muscular wooden beams, classic jazz bleats in the background. Within this otherwise calm setting, tensions simmer between rural-migrant and urban workers, congealing into boundaries. These boundaries are aided and abetted by job assignments, but enforced, extended, and elaborated by the interpretive activity of managers, employees, and customers.
Corporate policy at China-Mart limited front-of-the-house jobs (including customer service and cashier work) to urban hukou holders, not because they were assumed to have special skills but because the work involved monetary transactions. Formal urban residence provided some assurance that the employer could track down any urban employee who absconded with funds, particularly because they were required to provide the name and address of a nearby relative who would be held accountable. Lacking urban hukou, rural-origin employees were left with back-of-the-house work as cooks, handypersons, and custodial staff. Migrant workers earned wages approximately 35% lower than urbanites. Managerial posts were largely the domain of urbanites, with the minor exception of two migrant workers who served as low-level supervisors overseeing other migrant workers. Spatial categories (rural and urban) thus broadly organized the division of labor that in turn organized the spatial distribution of workers in the store itself. Urban managers and workers manufactured social differences with their rural colleagues, replacing the spatial distance that had segregated them for decades. With rapid change in policy eroding hukou restrictions on work and housing around the country, urban workers, anxious to preserve their relative status, reinforced organizational divides with cultural ramparts.
Situated in the front of the store, CS workers and cashiers were broadly categorized as service providers. Sporting crisp, white shirts, they greeted customers, taking their returns and managing their complaints from behind a counter positioned at the front of the store. Cashiers dressed in striped jerseys stood in small cashier modules where they greeted customers and processed purchases. Sharing a supervising manager, cashiers and CS workers attended the same shift meetings and rotated between posts in the front of the store. Food workers, dressed in white lab jackets stained with the food they prepared toiled at the back of the store where they prepared cuisine and doled out meals to waiting customers. After the daily lunch rush, these workers cleaned the kitchen, replenished food and condiment supplies, and also disposed of the trash. At break time, the respective groups socialized in separate areas. The kitchen workers retreated to a dimly lit space in the back of the store, while CS workers and cashiers gathered in a gourmet plaza, just outside the front of the store. From the first day Wu labored in these two different spaces, it became clear that workers in each harbored mutual antipathy, expressed in an ongoing narrative that amplified differences between them, constructing so many walls and moats separating the collectivities.
Managers, workers, and boundaries
Vexed by the shrinking space dividing urban and rural people, urban employees voiced unabashed and sometimes cruel criticism of migrant workers. In the process, they converted their urbanity into a form of capital suited to the workplace, service capital. As urbanites, managers reflected the qualities of this group, which presumably facilitated their own promotion. For this group, the division of labor at China-Mart was simply an organizational expression of their beliefs about essential differences between urbanites and rural people. This crystalized in the often-articulated claim that migrant workers were potential criminals not to be trusted with financial transactions. Mr. Yu, a Human Resources Supervisor, reinterpreted the policy entrusting monetary transactions to urban residents only as a sign of migrant criminality: “The migrants may steal the money and take it back to the countryside. Once they run away, there is no hope of catching them.” The rules create suspicion of migrant workers, while urbanites, no matter what their criminal proclivities, are assumed to be trustworthy because they enjoy urban residence. As the comment illustrates, the hukou system itself places anyone lacking an urban residential permit (that would allow them a legitimate city residence) at risk of criminal behavior. Exemption from criminal suspicion was thus a privilege of urban workers.
Potential criminality was not the only factor that kept migrant workers in the shadows of the store. The same supervisor, Yu, describes the aesthetic criteria for hiring front-of-the-house workers as distance from a negative standard, represented by migrant workers:
[They must have] the right look. Not necessarily pretty or anything. But your look cannot be, how do you say…too ‘country’ (cun’er)…You have to give the customer a good feeling, your eyes, smile, the way you stand…. It is also a kind of quality (suzhi). You cannot be trained [to do this work]… you are who you are.
In this context, migrant workers constitute an aesthetic low standard and urban workers gain rewards for their cultural distance from them. Urbanity was thus converted into aptitudes relevant to the service workplace. Wu was told by a manager that front-of-the-house workers were customers' “first impression” of the store. Urbanites were, therefore, thought to perform a kind of representational labor for which migrant workers were not considered suitable. Meanwhile, Human Resources Manager Ge suggested that food staff were little more than warm bodies, describing the following criteria for their hire, “As long as theyFootnote 3 are a person, alive, has two legs, two arms....” This projected upon migrants the status of minimally competent workers, stripping them of their dignity.
Managerial praise for urbanites also functioned to denigrate migrant workers. CS Manager Lu’s praise and disparagement in close succession left little ambiguity about his feelings:
My [urban] employees rarely receive complaints. They know how to deal with customers. The [migrant workers] have their own ways of pissing off customers...Some [customers] just come to our desk to complain about them.
The kitchen manager (an urbanite) even suggested that the bad manners of rural people rubbed off on her:
I need to be coarse when I talk with them … I feel that I lose my quality (suzhi) when I criticize them… Sometimes, I have to say something like, ‘what the hell are you doing, you stupid old bitch?’ Or like ‘If you do not want to work here then get the hell out of my kitchen.’ They felt pretty comfortable when I use coarse words and even understand my orders better.
The notion that migrant workers were incapable of proper interaction with customers, and therefore would be relegated to manual labor, was belied by the fact that a substantial amount of their work time was spent interacting with customers who purchased food from the kitchen. Yet, the store manager prohibited kitchen workers from attending service training, thereby excluding them from the benefits of formal socialization into the store’s customer culture and preserving urbanites' claim to knowledge of proper interactive behavior.
Urban workers echoed and extended the sentiments of their managers. These workers made legible their own interactive competencies by underscoring migrants’ alleged lack of social prowess. For example, after helping a migrant worker deal with a difficult customer, CS worker, Ning, gloated,
I enjoy the feeling that I can deal with the most difficult customers that other people cannot. For the backstage workers getting the customers to shut their stinking mouths is just impossible. So they pass them to me. I can turn the ‘impossible’ into the ‘possible’. It’s kind of challenging. You need to keep your brain running very fast to figure out the most appropriate way to convince them [customers].
Ning suggested that his aptitude for dealing with disgruntled customers required intelligence that migrant workers lack.Footnote 4 Even the act of apologizing took on organizational value in this context. Consider the appeal of cashier Xifei:
How many apologies do the kitchen workers have to make, really? Do you know how many times I have to say sorry? Like last week, a woman asked for a reusable bag and I did not hear her…. I immediately said ‘sorry, but…’ The reason I said ‘but’ was that I could not give her the bag for free...She said, ‘cut the but part, I just want to hear you say sorry…’ I bowed, smiled, and said sorry at least ten times. Do the kitchen workers need to lower themselves to pretend to be customer’s grandson? I don’t think so.
Another cashier compared the challenges posed by customer interaction with the alleged ease of food work: “…the kitchen workers hide in the kitchen. But we [cashiers] have to deal with customers, face-to-face, all the time. It’s much easier for [customers] to pick up our mistakes.” Ignoring the kitchen workers’ considerable interaction with customers, urban workers formulated their own visibility to, and interaction with, customers as presenting greater difficulties than kitchen labor, which they viewed as involving little more than chopping. CS worker, Ning, reacted to Wu when she mentioned she cut potatoes during her kitchen shift,
If you keep cutting for a year, you will turn into a potato. Look at all the other cooks in the kitchen… I am very curious whether all of their heads have already been stuffed with potatoes. They do not have brains in their heads! No need for them to think as long as they stay in the kitchen doing the cutting work.
Urban workers thus tended to reduce the spectrum of tasks kitchen workers performed to the simple act of chopping, defying the reality that migrant food workers perform a range of operations including interactive work.
Another CS worker, Xiaojia, pointed to her own physical self-discipline and intellect in describing how her rural colleagues reacted to a shared classroom environment:
I once trained with the cooks. They sat in the classroom and looked so sleepy. I was sleepy too, but I could pretend to listen just like I did in high school… The cooks could not handle it…They looked miserable, like ants on a frying pan...
Xiaojia’s ability to sit attentively, even as she fails to pay attention, serves as a display of the socialization of her body to assume comportment appropriate for the classroom in contrast with the cooks who are alternately sleepy and restless.
If migrants were viewed as cognitively limited, occasional references to the migrant worker bathroom struck at a more visceral level. CS worker Xue, accustomed to using the locker room assigned to urban workers, reported to colleagues that she used the kitchen workers’ bathroom: “It smells like the West Railway Station.” West Railway Station the point of disembarkation for most of the city’s migrants is now a local expression denoting spaces populated by rural people, associating foul odor with migrant bodies.
The image of the undisciplined migrant worker body seemed to haunt some workers. Consider CS worker Xue’s depiction of what came to be known as the “beef incident:”
A customer wanted a very small slice of beef but the kitchen worker refused to cut it for him. So they came to our desk…When the customer verbally abused the cook, saying, ‘fuck your mother,’ the cook suddenly became very angry... One of his hands was clenched into a fist. You should have seen his face. Very evil looking… Then I got scared... So I called security and let them deal with it. I quickly ran away. Later I began to worry about my working situation.
Interestingly, Xue does not feel her safety to be threatened by the urban customer, who instigated the rude behavior. She is no doubt influenced by ubiquitous media images casting migrants as a source of urban crime and public disorder. Such fear along with invocation of migrant workers’ lack of aesthetic appeal, intellect, cleanliness, and composure is one of the many reasons that urban workers fashioned workplace boundaries out of their spatial privileges.
Customers and boundaries
If their urban colleagues constructed a wall relegating migrants to a symbolic ghetto, urban customers patrolled its perimeter in their routine discourtesy toward the disadvantaged workers. Xue’s quote from the prior section attests to the level of disrespectful treatment customers visit upon migrants that was far from exceptional. Wu witnessed acts of disrespect toward migrants, in the form of routine insults, hot tempers, and demanding behavior every few days. Here, we focus on “the beef incident” (described above). Bin, the migrant worker party to the encounter, suggested just how inappropriately the customer acted:
I explained to the customer that we cannot slice [beef] like that because nobody else would buy the rest...the whole chunk would be wasted. He said, ‘what the hell are you talking about? Fuck your mother. Just slice the beef for me, you fool.’ What I hate most is the way Beijing people abuse my mother. So I told him, ‘Let’s not involve other people’s mothers, ok? You are also born by your mother.’ Then he lost control. He jumped over the counter, held my collar, and said, ‘let’s find your manager.’
Despite—or perhaps because of—Bin’s insistence that he and the customer shared a common humanity, the customer became violent. Bin continued:
He just kept holding my collar and pulling me the whole way to the CS desk. What was really funny, when we approached the CS desk, he suddenly let go of my collar and turned to talk to the CS girl. He changed into a polite person…What pissed me off most was that he kept talking to the CS girl like, ‘you understand what I mean, right?’ I mean as a service worker you should be aware that you ought to satisfy the customers’ requests’… and a lot of bullshit like that… Then I lost my control and threatened him.
Bin’s account highlighted the dual standards of treatment accorded urban and migrant workers, with the customer switching demeanor from caustic to polite upon approaching the CS worker. In contrast with the customers’ gracious manner, adopted for the benefit of Xue, Bin seemed irrational and coarse—behavioral indictments for the incident. However, in Bin’s account, he was calm—if a bit cheeky—in the face of the customer’s insults, his behavior escalating in kind only with the customer’s verbal abuse.
In some sense, customers invent migrant workers’ low status through a regular pattern of discourtesy, which prompts migrants’ defensive reactions as they struggle to restore their dignity. With repetition, the dynamic reinforces urbanite’s belief in their own superiority and migrants’ fears of reprisal. Since many customers treat migrant workers with contempt, managers find justification in relegating rural peoples to the recesses of the store.
Muscles versus mouths: migrant workers challenge boundaries
“…I am kind of proud of myself. I earn my rice using my hands…”—kitchen worker.
A frequent response of those on the losing side of boundaries is to reverse, or invert, the order by claiming their attributes are, in fact, superior to those with whom they have been unfavorably compared (Wimmer 2008a). The steady stream of offenses lobbed at migrants by colleagues and customers created cynicism about urban norms and values, leading migrants to reverse the urban ethos projecting all things rural as culturally impoverished (Wimmer 2008a, b). To wit, migrants highlighted the value of their labor by pointing to the inadequacies of urbanites. One expressive vehicle for the representational reversal was pity. During a break one morning, a few kitchen workers shared concern about their front-of-the-house, urban colleagues, who never carried lunch from home, instead buying it from the kitchen. It seemed obvious that these colleagues lacked basic cooking skills. One quipped that CS worker Xue might fail to find a husband since, as she herself confessed, could not cook rice. The discussion elevates the worth of kitchen workers’ labor by underscoring the tangible use values produced in the form of food. On the face of it, this may seem like a slight on Xue’s gender, but in fact, it expressed migrant workers’ sense that urban workers who grew up under the single child policy (which was not enforced for rural people) were overindulged by their parents and therefore lacked practical skills.
Even more deserving of physically robust migrants' pity was urban workers’ physical lassitude, on which they commented regularly. They commandeered manual tasks that urban workers were too weak to perform. When CS workers moved bundles of shopping bags from the storage to the cashier stands, migrants noticed their faces contorted with discomfort and took over the task. One migrant offered a typical comment:
We carry boxes from the basement hundreds of times in one day. They use their mouth all day long. I rarely see them use their hands. It takes us twenty minutes [to carry bags]. But if you let them do it, it can drag on for hours….
Urbanites’ work here is reduced to an oral exercise, an assertion which implicitly rejects any connection between interactive labor and intellect.
Another means migrant workers used to invert the symbols urbanites used to subordinate them, and thereby recuperate a bit of dignity, was to trumpet the heroics of farm labor. Wu heard many of stories of farm work that required grit simply unfathomable to urban workers. For example, Luoxi, a kitchen worker from a small village in Inner Mongolia describes his conception of valuable labor:
I am a diligent person... I woke up early when I was at home, before 5 a.m. When you are farming, if you get up late, the hot sun will wither the crops. My crops never withered… Now I am working in the city. I still get up before 5 a.m.
There were also stories of rural colleagues who whenever possible, returned to their villages to help with the harvest.
Many protested that their status as rural people exempted them from promotions. Migrant worker and kitchen worker Peng complained to Wu that no matter how hard he worked, his rural status sealed his lifelong fate as a low-level worker:
No matter how hard you work, [urbanites] always believe your quality (suzhi) is low.... Like, if there is the same opportunity in front of you and me. We do the same work for three years. You are promoted to a managerial position. Me? I will still work in the kitchen cutting my potatoes. After ten years, when you have become the CEO, I might still be cutting my potatoes.
Migrants were especially dubious about the construct of “skill” that disqualified them from better paid jobs. Bin told Wu that he learned to use a computer labeling system when an urban worker took sick leave. He said, “You assume they are doing some scientific stuff there. They are not. It was easy after the manager showed me how to use it. Nothing is a miracle there at all.” In Wu’s observations, migrant workers had no difficulties acquiring the basic computer competencies required for CS work.
The symbolic reversals were an attempt to contest ranking by hukou at the retailer but had little effect in repositioning migrants in the store hierarchies, as they underscored the very practices—farming and manual labor—that relegated them to bad jobs. Yet, the migrants fought on this symbolic battlefield to cope with frequent hostility from urbanites and maintain a modicum of dignity. These attempts at inversion only reinforced migrant worker’s place in the organizational hierarchy.