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Special Frature: The Changing World of Chinese Labour

Legal Activism or Class Action?

The political economy of the “no boss” and “no labour relationship” in China’s construction industry
Pun Ngai and Xu Yi
p. 9-17


This article aims to study an issue of “double absence” embedded in the rapidly changing construction industry and to explore how it induces serious collective action among construction workers in post-socialist China. The political economy of the construction industry has shaped a specific labour use system – a labour subcontracting system. The system generates a specific capital-labour relationship in which the legal labour identity and labour relationship are highly subsumed by an “absent” employer. It creates a double absence in legal terms: an “absent” boss and an “absent” labour relationship. This double absence has led to a perpetual process of wage arrears and struggles by construction workers to pursue delayed wages in various ways, usually involving legal action or non-legal collective action. The findings of this study are drawn from case studies conducted between 2008 and 2009 in seven Chinese cities. The labour struggle – the fight for delayed payment – was understood not as a form of legal labour activism, but as incipient class action in a specific context.

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Electronic reference

Pun Ngai and Xu Yi, « Legal Activism or Class Action? », China Perspectives [Online], 2011/2 | 2011, Online since 30 June 2014, connection on 29 May 2017. URL :

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About the authors

Pun Ngai

Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Xu Yi

Candidate in the Department of Applied Social Sciences, Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

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