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School of Environment, Education and Development

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BA Geography with International Study

Study a course tailored to you at the university ranked fourth in the UK for Geography (Guardian University Guide).

BA Geography with International Study

Year of entry: 2018

Course unit details:
Asian Workers and the Labour of Globalisation

Unit code GEOG31071
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 1
Offered by Geography
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Today more than ever, Asian workers produce many of the manufactured products we consume: from iPhones to trainers, automobiles, and even the ‘virtual gold’ used in online computer games. And yet, popular accounts of globalization and ‘Asian values’ often depict Asian workers as either docile subjects or passive victims of exploitation, a view that neglects the agency of these workers in shaping their own geographies. This course seeks to challenge these assumptions by examining the dynamic processes through which space has been produced for, but also contested by, Asian workers in the global economy. What types of institutional reforms have produced such a large number of neophyte factory workers in the Asian region? How are the labour relations of Asian workers embedded within and across place, gender, and scale? What formal and informal resources have workers utilized in order to contest uneven and oppressive labour relations? How have labour movements articulated their goals within wider struggles for democracy and global justice?

                This course seeks to tackle these important and timely questions by exploring a variety of socio-spatial processes that have assigned workers a key role in the production of Asia as an emerging region: from the construction of free economic zones in North Korea, to the restructuring of China's 'Iron Rice Bowl’, and the rollout of factory-enclaves with built-in dormitories of rural female migrant workers across SE Asia. In particular, this course will try to unlock some of the complex roles that ethnicity, gender, migration, and political subjectivity have played in the shaping of Asian workers’ geographies. While the geographically-situated, political economic relations that shape labour's multiple 'spaces' will be discussed, particular attention will be paid to how workers themselves actively articulate their identities and struggles as part of their wider social formations. Attention will be paid to diverse strategies of worker resistance, with particular attention to how demands for democracy in the workplace resonate with historical constructions of identity (including concepts of ‘the people,’ as well as regional, gender and ethnic identities), locality, and citizenship. Finally, the course explores some of the everyday tactics and unconventional strategies of protest, or ‘weapons of the weak’, that workers have developed to contest labour relations in contexts where formal collective bargaining has been repressed or restricted.

                The readings draw upon contemporary labour histories from across Asia, but have a strong focus on the politics of labour affected by export-oriented industrialization in China and East and Southeast Asia. The main textbook addresses the rise of China’s large ‘floating population’ of rural migrant workers and their struggles in the workplace. Nonetheless, students are encouraged to use the theories and concepts from the lectures and apply them to contexts of labour politics elsewhere within Asia in their coursework. Through readings and assignments, students will be encouraged to examine different contexts of production and labour struggle in a way that contests dominant narratives of Asian workers as passive or docile subjects and facilitates comparisons between different places, histories, and cultures.



  • ·         To develop a perspective on the role of Asian workers in the global economy;

    ·         To examine the ways that multiple forms of spatial and social difference shape workers’ geographies;

    ·         To develop an understanding of how workers contest unequal labour relations;

    ·         To conceptualise the geographies of Asian labour\Asian labour geographies in light the effects of a export-oriented economic development strategies;

    ·         To explore the geographical dilemmas of justice that (Asian) workers face within the contemporary global economy.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course unit, you should be able to:

·         Demonstrate how geographies of labour are embedded in and articulated across multiple dimensions: space, scale, place, but also community, nation, region, gender, the body and so on;

·         Recognise some of the key challenges faced by Asian workers within the contemporary global economy;

·         Demonstrate the wide range of strategic options open to workers to contest unequal labour relations;

·         Illustrate your arguments with examples and case studies drawn from the Asian region.



1.            Orientation: Asian labour geographies

2.            Is labour a commodity?

3.            Chinese workers from Mao to market

4.            The dormitory labour regime

5.            The 'minor politics' of labour resistance

6.            Study Week

7.            Producing the 'people'

8.            'Deportability' as a form of labour control

9              Study Week

10.          Labour internationalisms

11.          From the enclave to the zone 

12.          The future


Teaching and learning methods

The course unit will be delivered via a 2+1 format, namely a two-hour lecture and a one-hour seminar each week. The lecture sessions will be interactive and include a variety of media resources, including videos and photographic images. The seminars will provide space for student-led engagement with the supporting literature and other course materials. A high level of student participation will be required from all students throughout the course. Students will be expected to help lead tutorial discussions and to directly engage with course texts. 

Transferable skills and personal qualities

Skills and employability:

  • Critical thinking, reflection and self-awareness;
  • Information handling skills, project planning, evaluation and analysis of different kinds of evidence;
  • An ability to assess the merits of contrasting theories, explanations and their policy implications;
  • An ability to develop, articulate and sustain structured and reasoned written arguments;
  • An ability to structure and present material in creative ways;
  • Motivation and self-directed learning;
  • Awareness of your responsibility as a global citizen.

Assessment methods

Students will be assessed by one piece of individual coursework a 2500 word essay (50%) and a 2 hour final exam (50%).


Coursework assignment

·         An individual 2500-word essay that provides conceptually informed examination of a contemporary form of labour control, labour regime, or labour struggle in Asia.

Final exam

·         2hour exam: a selection of two short answers and an essay question from a range of choices.

Feedback methods

  • Feedback will be provided in the following ways during this course unit:

    ·         extensive verbal feedback through Q&A, discussion and interaction within lectures and seminars;

    ·         verbal feedback on any course unit issue through consultation hours;

    ·         on-going peer feedback through seminar participation;

    ·         detailed written feedback on the coursework assignments.

Recommended reading

Phil Kelly. 2002 Spaces of labour control: comparative perspectives from Southeast Asia. Transactions Inst Br Geographers 27 395–411.


Anna Tsing. (2008) “Contingent commodities”. In Peluso and Nevin (eds). Taking Southeast Asia to Market. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Parry, J. 2009 “’Sociological Marxism’ in central India: Polanyi, Gramsci, and the case of the unions.” In Hann C and Hart K, 2009, Market and Society: The Great Transformation today (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge) 175-202.


Ngai, P. 2005. Made in China: Women Factory Workers in a Global Marketplace. London: Duke University Press.


Hagen Koo. 2001 Worker identity and consciousness. In Korean Workers: The Culture and Politics of Class Formation. Ithaca: Cornell University Press


Doucette. J. 2013 Minjung Tactics in a Post-Minjung Era? The survival of self-immolation and traumatic forms of labour protest in South Korea. In G. Gall ed. New forms and expressions of conflict in the workplace. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillian, 212-231.


Rachel Silvey 2004 Transnational domestication: state power and Indonesian migrant women in Saudi Arabia. Political Geography 23: 245-264


Nicole Constable (2009) MIGRANT WORKERS AND THE MANY STATES OF PROTEST IN HONG KONG, Critical Asian Studies, 41:1, 143-164,


 Lambert R and Webster E. 2001. Southern Unionism and the New Labour Internationalism. Antipode (2?) 336-362


Don Wells. 2007 Too weak for the job. Global Social Policy. 7(1) 51-74.

Aihwa Ong. (2006) “Zones Technologies in East Asia.” In Neoliberalism as Exception. Durham: Duke University Press.


Keller Easterling 2014 Extrastatecraft: the power of infrastructural space. London: Verso. Chapter 1: Zone; 25-71.


Interactive feature: How a pay raise killed workers: the Story of a North Face manufacturer in Bangladesh. Available online at


Tu Lan, John Pickles & Shengjun Zhu (2014): State Regulation, Economic Reform and Worker Rights: The Contingent Effects of China’s Labour Contract Law, Journal of Contemporary Asia, DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2014.940592

Video:  2010. Last Train Home. Dir: Lixin Fan. Available in Kantorwicz Library.




Asia Monitor Resource Center:

Focus on the Global South:

Labourstart news


Key Journals:

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Antipode, Critical Asian Studies, Economic Geography Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Labour Studies,  positions: east asia cultural critique, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers; 



Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Assessment written exam 2
Lectures 20
Seminars 10
Independent study hours
Independent study 168

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Jamie Doucette Unit coordinator

Additional notes


Comprises of Lectures and Seminars. Please refer to course content information for further details.


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