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From IT Factory to Electronic Markets: Speculations on Circuits, Regions, Labour

[Published in Transit Labour: Circuits, Regions, Borders, Digest no. 1, July 2010]

In programming field trip visits to two seemingly incongruous settings – an IT facility on the outskirts of Shanghai and Baoshan market for electronic waste, second hand products and fake gadgets  – we see how both regions and social mobilization are configured as singularities within a larger constellation of relations. Following earlier waves of manufacturing across East Asia where ‘Made in Japan’ and, later, ‘Made in Taiwan’ became synonymous with a range of electronic commodities and attendant mythologies of techno-cultural dystopias, over the last two decades China has become renowned as the planet’s epicentre for electronic manufacturing. When purchased, one of the primary attractions of an electronic commodity is how clean it seems. The lovely smooth surfaces coated in buffed plastics or complex metal composites provide a suitable black box of mystery for their interior circuits and generation of values that betray the toxic conditions of production and their effects on worker’s health and the environment. Such is the fantastic power of the commodity-form to abstract itself from the experience of labour and life.

But the index of labour, as Marx so astutely observed, is never entirely divorced from the commodity-form. The relation between labour and the production of electronic commodities will of course be palpable at an IT factory in ways that can never be the case at some flagship store for global electronic brands. But even at the factory, the body is separated from the commodity-form as a result of the division of labour and the centrality of machines to the manufacturing process. What we see is the body in toto, but it is a body that is at once machinic (as technical apparatus rather than social assemblage of the general intellect) while refusing any totalizing subjugation by the machine through the assertion of special human qualities. We hear the language of dialects and notice the skin of ethnicities. Here is the most basic of anthropological encounters. Without some kind of hermeneutic device we are left in the realm of the senses – responses that nowadays are discredited within academe and its disciplinary sensitivities to the politics of the other (which arguably are more about a narcissistic politics of identity and the self). No matter how momentary or partial, we search for a cognitive model with which to render the mutability of sensation as stasis in the grid of reason. This is the problem of method.

Where the IT factory’s PCB circuit board – “the basic platform used to interconnect electronic components” – is part of an East Asian regional formation at a transnational scale, sites such as Baoshan electronic market in urban Shanghai combine intra-national regional formations in terms of the domestic sale of second-hand commodities and electronic waste with a global traffic in the recycling of e-waste. By studying the movement of e-waste, we find that electronic components – many of which have been made in China – are grafted in different ways to national and international regulations designed to govern the treatment of electronic waste. As is well known, the Chinese government banned the importation of e-waste in 1996 (Maxwell and Miller). Yet the informal e-waste economy is substantial and thriving in small businesses in cities along the eastern seaboard. Some of these businesses located in places like Baoshan market integrate the reassembly of second hand computer parts with a sideline in recycling e-waste purchased both through domestic and transnational circuits of trade. In both instances, electronic objects that may come from the same family of parts hold substantially different status at the spatial scale depending on their circuits of movement.

In moving from the site of manufacturing to one that deals in the detritus of consumption, we might discern the multiplication of regions. The circuit boards produced at the IT factory are part of a social life of things that become mobilized across the regional space of Asia during the process of assembly. The composition of low-wage labour also constitutes a regional formation, but one that in the case of the Shanghai IT factory is drawn from provinces set back from the special economic zones stretching along the eastern seaboard. In China’s manufacturing, construction and service industries there’s a tendency for labour to assemble according to provincial filiations. The network of waste workers in Shanghai’s Xu Hui District (or former French Concession), for example, are migrants from Anhui province and their self-organization of labour is predicated on provincial connections. To take another example: many of the workers in the e-waste and second hand electronic markets in Ningbo, a city south of Shanghai, migrate from Jiangxi province. And in the case of Nanhai – “one of the best digital cities in Guangdong” (and one of the biggest centres for e-waste and second hand electronics) – workers stem from Hubei province. It’s worth noting that Nanhai also has a substantial ship building industry, and it’s perhaps no surprise that Guangdong province has more relaxed borders of control when it comes to the importation of illegal e-waste from overseas markets such as Japan, Europe, the US and Australia. Businesses in Ningbo, where border control at the port is more stringent, find alternative routes for the movement of illegal e-waste – cities such as Nanhai serve as a key source for the transit of waste from within the sovereign territory of the nation; in turn, unsold products in Ningbo’s second hand markets are considered e-waste and sold back to junk men and women from Guangdong and Taizhou (Lv Yulin).

In a site visit to Baoshan electronic market last week, Anja Kanngieser found that workers came from quite a wide range of cities and provinces: Suzhou, Nanjing, Henan, Jiangxi and Anhui. Yet at another electronic market, not so far away on Fuxing Lu, workers came predominantly from Guangdong province, the centre of the electronic manufacturing and waste industies. While e-waste seemed to be something on sale in the case of Baoshan with all its regional cosmopolitanism, this wasn’t the case at Fuxing Lu. Yet often e-waste is hard to see immediately, and it’s a sort of sliding object or category in the sense that unsold second hand products, which are often reassembled into hybrid objects to be sold again, then become ‘e-waste’ when they can’t be sold as products and are sold on to junk men/women as waste. Junk is not junk, in other words. Or rather, the same looking junk becomes quite different junk – an object lesson on the empty signifier. Both waste and labour, then, comprise forms of social mobility that can be understood as special intra-national and trans-national regional formations whose borders are highly elastic.

In searching for an analytical method with which to make sense of these various mobilities, we have been struck by the role of logistics as a biopolitical technology of control in governing the movement of people and things in the interests of communication, transport and economic efficiencies. “We understand method to emerge precisely from the material circumstances at hand …. Border as method thus entails not only an epistemic viewpoint from which a whole series of strategic concepts as well as their relations can be recast. It also requires a research process that continually accounts for and reacts to the multifarious battles and negotiations, not least those concerning race, that constitute the border both as an institution and a set of social relationships” (Mezzadra and Neilson). What, then, might logistics as method hold for the analysis of transit labour? As we note in our catalogue of project concepts: “Logistical methods of organization apply to contemporary production and patterns of mobility.” Organization, in turn, becomes a question and practice for the arrangement of bodies and brains mobilized as labour.

In governing labouring subjects and the treatment of objects or things, logistics deploys vastly different technologies of capture depending upon the scale of the business. In fieldwork undertaken with my MA students at Nottingham, Ningbo this past semester, it was fascinating to get a sense of the differences between logistics operations at CMA CGM, a large French multinational shipping firm, compared to Maoyu International Freight Agency, a local Ningbo company with around 20 staff that acts as “a forwarding agency which in fact doesn’t have cargo but only work as a coordinator linking and smoothing the communication between shippers, carriers and other relevant links within the whole logistics network” (Wu Yang). As Huang Yunbo noted in her fieldwork report, “Software used in KPI tracing in the big company differs from the small one. As mentioned by our interviewee that a powerful EDI [Electronic Data Interchange] system is extensively applied within international companies that it can automatically generate update information from different database instantly to ensure the operation go efficiently and properly”.

In terms of working conditions and experiences, “People working in the international giant seem to work in a less stressful environment for most of they show confidence in achieving targets for their performance and can finish work on time without OT. Interviewees in the small company expressed that sometimes they need to work after office hour for customer-relationship building. Other findings are the role and influence Worker’s Union in the big company. Although most people apply for Union membership as joining the company, they don’t treat union as a powerful place for right protection. Even most of they don’t know how the Union usually work. The way workers claim their rights not through any organization as Worker’s Union or Foreign Enterprises Service Company but through the communication with the immediate boss which are regarded as the direct and efficient way. The reason for this, according to the interviewee, that there is no a culture here to seek help from Worker’s Union” (Huang).

In the case of the local Maoyu International Freight Agency, Mukda Pratheepwatanawong found that the “The culture of the company is very informal. As the company is small, investments on KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) databases have not been done.  Employees use traditional clocking machine to record their working hours and the Human Resource department will measure their performance based on their work, working hours and their behaviour. There is no labour union in the company and therefore employees would seek government support if they have any issues with the company.” And Wu Yang: “Because Maoyu is not a big company and quite a free styled privately-owned enterprise, the working environment is casual and eased. No formal dress is requested and non business talk is fine as well. Meanwhile, there is no KPI (Key Performance Indicators) or ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) to systematically measure the employees’ performance but only depending on customer numbers, profit margin, workload and working behaviour. The only visible measurement on site is clocking machine. Though the physical environment seems quite informal here, the working pressure still exists everywhere. For sells man, they have to keep good relationship with existing customers and search for new ones; for buyers, they have to negotiate lower prices from shipping companies so as to compete with other forwarding agency; for documentation specialists, their job is most detailed and trivial, so intensive concentration and well-organized personality are requested. For all of them, working over-time or working outside workplace is quite normal…. Besides with social ability, computer skill is also a very important way to increase communication efficiency. Instant massager like MSN or QQ are used to not only timely report updated information to customers, but also track and trace shipment from carriers. Other software like Cargo2000 as an internal data system and communication platform can help keep the orders systematically and follow up the processing more easily.”

In visiting the IT facility and second hand and electronic waste markets, we might inquire how logistics plays a role in governing labour and commodity flows. In doing so, we might also discern how regions are constituted differently according to such technologies of management and control. Perhaps, more curiously, we might discover the possibility for what I have termed elsewhere “the production of non-governable subjects and spaces” that translate “the indifference of communication”.


Maxwell and Miller,
Mezzadra and Neilson,
Lv Yulin,
Huang Yunbo,
Wu Yang,
Mukda Pratheepwatanawong,

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