Written by  Nellie Chu.

In Guangzhou the arrival of transnational migrant entrepreneurs from countries across Africa has captured the attention of a growing number of scholars, artists, and documentary film makers. Their works have described in rich detail the complexities of these migrants’ experiences as they labor to establish their work and family lives in the post-socialist nation.

While most studies have focused on the broader socio-economic ramifications of African migrants’ activities in China, few works have analyzed how the structural dynamics of transnational outsourcing of labor and manufacturing capacities shape the everyday encounters between African migrant entrepreneurs and Chinese manufacturers. Labor subcontracting based on low-volume production and short-term contracts among non-elite, migrant entrepreneurs (that is, both domestic and foreign migrants) demand consideration, since the precarious conditions of business and work for all participating parties in an economic transaction throw into sharp relief the question of who ultimately dictates the terms of labor and exchange.

In the low-cost garment industry in Guangzhou, where I conducted my dissertation fieldwork from 2010-2012, the volatility of short-term contracts compels independent contractors, brokers, and small-scale manufacturers to come together to negotiate the terms of collaboration and exchange. In the city’s garment district, clusters of small assembly workshops predominantly owned and operated by Chinese migrants from the countryside serve the world’s commodity chains for fast fashion. There, the production processes of garment mass manufacture are segmented such that assembly workshops serve only one node along the larger transnational commodity chain.

These fragmented processes include dyeing fabric, printing images on t-shirts, and embroidering logos onto t-shirts. Because of the fragmentation of these production processes, clients must supply their own fabrics and accessories before quickly delivering them to manufacturers. They rely on their manufacturers to ensure quality of garments and speed of production at low costs in order to catch up with the speedy turnover of fashion trends. At the same time, Chinese manufacturers depend on a steady stream of production orders from their clients in order to sustain their small-scale businesses.

Because of the quickly changing conditions of sub-contract labor, Chinese manufacturers and their transnational clients must mutually negotiate the terms of collaboration and exchange. Industry demands for quality and speed of delivery at low-costs along the commodity chains for cheap garments require participants in an economic transaction to constantly re-negotiate with one another in light of highly variable circumstances, which include the fluctuating costs of fabric and raw materials, as well as the changing cycles of fashion trends. Specifically, these industry-wide instabilities affect garment quality and price, two aspects of garment production that are often highly contested among negotiating parties.

In the vignette I present below, I describe the unstable and unpredictable conditions of labor sub-contracting, which frequently determine African migrant entrepreneurs’ encounters with Chinese manufacturers. I show in detail how both parties in a market transaction mutually work out uncertainties concerning garment quality and price, which emerge through cultural encounters and economic negotiations. These market instabilities, in turn, leave open the question of who is ultimately exploiting whom in an economic transaction.

One Saturday afternoon, I received an unexpected phone call from Mrs. Wong, the owner of a small factory, with whom I had become close friends. She and her husband operated their factory in the garment district of Guangzhou. Moments after she greeted me, I detected a crack in her voice as she nervously asked me to stop by their factory to assist her in translating and mediating a deal with their English-speaking client. Nancy and her husband, who were from the Congo, had suddenly arrived at the Wongs’ factory that day to place a production order of a thousand school uniforms to be sent back to Africa.

Shortly after I arrived at the factory, I immediately noticed that she was anxious. Her hands shook slightly and her eyes seemed to glaze over from confusion. Mrs. Wong must have felt a bit flustered by the unforeseen need to negotiate a transaction with her new clients. As I climbed up the staircase to the second floor, Nancy and her husband, who appeared to be in their mid-forties, were sitting calmly by the computer. With a mocha printed dress, Nancy waited patiently as she surfed the internet and read her emails.

Meanwhile, her husband was dressed in a pristine gray suit with a collared, button-down shirt. He was reclining on a sofa which lay beside the computer. Both were sipping soda from slender glass bottles that Mrs. Wong had brought from the convenient store across the street. Their tall, broad bodies towered over Mrs. Wong’s diminutive stature to the extent that the couple had to tilt their necks downward in order to avoid hitting their heads against the low ceiling. Their silence cast a thick air of discomfort around us.

When Nancy turned around and looked towards my direction, I took the opportunity to introduce myself to her. I explained that I was a friend of the Wongs, and that I was an anthropology graduate student from California. Nancy was a tall, heavy-set woman with glasses and a large, loose draping dress that covered her voluptuous figure. She seemed impressed that I was able to speak both English and Cantonese. She enthusiastically grabbed and affectionately cupped my right hand.

Once Ms. Wong saw that Nancy and I initiated a casual conversation between us, she immediately interjected, directing me to ask Nancy whether the two samples that she had brought were the largest sizes she wanted. I then translated Mrs. Wong’s questions in English for Nancy. With a sigh, Nancy suddenly looked frustrated, and explained that last week she had given the Wongs samples with a specific logo attached. According to Nancy, the Wongs had lost the logo. I then asked Mrs. Wong whether she had seen it. Irritated, Mrs. Wong replied that her husband might have lost it amid the surrounding clutter of broken fabric pieces, construction paper, and various tools. Nancy then reluctantly said that she could ask her brother, who worked as a garment wholesaler, to resend it from the Congo.

When I inspected Nancy’s dress sample in front of me, I noticed that the dress was a school uniform designed for teenage women. It consisted of a button-up, collared shirt with a magenta cardigan. A boy’s uniform lay beside it. It was a collared shirt with a matching navy V-neck sweater. As I examined the samples, Nancy replied that she wanted the uniforms to be exactly the same size as that of the samples she brought in.

During the course of the conversation, I felt rather uneasy about playing the role of a translator between the two parties. I noticed that Ms. Wong kept her eye contact directly to me, almost as if she was ignoring the presence of the couple in the conversation, primarily because of her discomfort with the situation. While picking up a notebook and a pen, Mrs. Wong then proceeded to ask Nancy the precise measurements for small, medium, and large sizes for both garment samples. I then translated the information to Nancy, who responded with a slight air of indifference.

Without even any precise measurements, Nancy simply eye-balled the width and length of the dress and marked the dimensions of the garment with slight hand gestures. I was surprised by Nancy’s seemingly nonchalant attitude and even a sense of impatience toward these technical details. In order to avoid any misunderstandings, I grabbed an industrial-sized ruler and took the liberty of measuring the dimensions of the garment, so that both parties could visibly see the lengths and mutually agree upon them.

The negotiations between Nancy and Mrs. Wong intensified once we began to discuss the issue of pricing. Mrs. Wong asked Nancy (via me) whether she intended to pay both for the fabric and the deposit as a lump sum in her initial payment. Before Nancy responded, she asked Mrs. Wong how long the production of the garments would take to complete once she submitted the payment. Mrs. Wong responded that the production process would take about two weeks to complete an order of more than a thousand garments, and that production would have to start the following Monday.

The exchange between the two women became more heated when Nancy asked for the total cost of production, including the cost of labor and fabric. With paper and pen in hand, Mrs. Wong wrote the number of garments that needed to be produced and multiplied the number by 11 RMB for the men’s dress shirts and 18 RMB for the women’s dress shirts. Apparently, Nancy and Mrs. Wong’s husband made a prior agreement over the phone to produce 700 pieces of the men’s shirt, and 850 pieces of the women’s dress shirt.

Suddenly, Nancy turned to Mrs. Wong. In the heat of the moment, Nancy suddenly broke into Mandarin Chinese, casting aside my role as the mediator and translator. She disagreed with the negotiated figures. In her best Putonghua, she explained that they had previously negotiated 8 RMB for the labor cost of the men’s shirt, and 11 RMB for the women’s shirt. Even though Nancy did not know the phrase “cost of labor” in Putonghua, she improvised by imitating the noises and actions of a sewing machine. She laid out both hands in front of her as if they were passing through a roving needle and mimicked the hum of a machine with the sounds of doot doot doot.” Surprisingly Mrs. Wong immediately understood. Although Nancy admitted that she was not quite fluent in Putonghua, it seemed that she was well-versed in the vocabulary and tactics of business negotiations in China.

As the price negotiation between Nancy and Mrs. Wong played out before me, Mr. Wong returned from his trip to the nearby fabric market. During Mrs. Wong’s discussion with Nancy, Mr. Wong went to the nearby fabric market to look for a type of fabric that matched Nancy’s dress sample. After a fruitless search, he failed to find the precise fabric Nancy and her husband requested. As he slowly settled in, Mr. Wong joined in the discussions, clarifying the terms of the negotiations that he made with Nancy in a previous conversation.

In the end, Nancy and the Wongs never went through with the transaction. Neither party agreed on the type of fabric to use. Since Nancy had neglected to bring in a sample of the fabric she desired, both parties had to agree on a new type of fabric that was available at the right price. According to the Wongs, the fabric that Nancy wanted to use had a thicker and heavier texture, but working with this fabric required more labor time than the Wongs wanted. In contrast, the Wongs provided a cheaper substitute fabric, but Nancy rejected it because the quality was low. She asked if the Wongs could supply her with a substitute fabric of mid-grade quality, so the price could be reduced without having to compromise on quality. Otherwise, she explained, her brother would not make any money.

Because neither party could fulfill the other’s conditions and requirements for profit-making, the two parties’ business relationship never developed. The Wongs could not meet the narrow margin of profit that Nancy and her husband demanded. The factory couple lost a potential client with overseas connections to trade and finance. At the same time, the Congolese couple must search for another manufacturer in Guangzhou who may not adhere to the quality and pricing standards that they require.

Although I never saw Nancy and her husband again, their visit to the Wong’s factory highlighted the precariousness of these cross-cultural and economic interactions, leaving me to reflect on the dynamics of exploitation and capital accumulation that operate through highly contingent and uncertain encounters.

Nellie Chu is a Post-doctoral Research at the Center for Transregional Research Network (CETREN) at the University of Goettingen, Germany. Image Credit: CC by Freedom House/Flickr.