Accepted paper:

The formalisation of informal work: the precarious worklife of female workers at the Tibetan railway security check


Pengyin Kong (London School of Economics and Politics)

Paper short abstract:

Based on 1-year fieldwork in the security team of Lhasa railway station, I study the bodily work experience and sexualisation and ethnicization of labour. Deceived by 'the formalisation of informal work', migrant workers are exploited by a Tibetan middle-class dream of being part of the state.

Paper long abstract:

Following the recent interests in the interaction between the global privatisation trend and heterogeneous ethical actions(GENS), this article illustrates Chinese infrastructure politics under the state capitalistic regime through railway outsourcing works. Based on 12 months' fieldwork with Tibetan security girls in Lhasa railway station, I study the precariousness taken by post-socialist migrant labors. My research combines the ANT perspective with phenomenology, focusing on bodily experience in the entangled human-nonhuman security network. For girls from traditional nomad's families on vast grassland living in a relaxed lifestyle, the crowded working space, the frequent physical contacts, the fixed schedule and the unreachable standard of working as machines, challenge their life habit and time-space cognition, trigger the sense of fetter and anxiety, and undermine their identity as Tibetans and even human. Besides the implicit daily governance, the work enables proletarianization processes through sexualisation and ethnicization of labour. They become cheap workers because of bio-morality associated with their minority female identity, who are assumed unskilful, endurable, and available to break into the intimate boundary of body checking. Different from the 'pink collars' attracted by global consumptive culture, most security girls are deceived by techniques what I call 'the formalisation of informal work', making other people or even themselves believe that they are or will be formal workers. Against the backdrop of Chinese 'gift' development projects and China-Tibet patron-client relationship, these girls are inspired by a Tibetan middle-class dream of being accepted by formal institutions and becoming a part of the state.

panel N2
New geographies and imaginaries of work in the Global South