BA Geography with International Study

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Asian Workers and the Labour of Globalisation

Course unit fact file
Unit code GEOG31072
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
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 bitcoin. 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 and with, 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 pain 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 how the politics of labour is affected by export-oriented industrialization in East, South 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 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: Why do we need Asian labour geographies?

2.            Starting points: Is labour a commodity?

3.           How do workers use space?

4.            Unfinished Proletarianization? Chinese workers from Mao to market

5.            Labour regime theory and the dormitory labour regime

6.            Study Week TBC

7.           Informal resistance: Weapons of the weak and 'minor politics'

8.            Labour and popular politics: Producing the ‘People’ in South Korea and beyond

9.            Contemporary migration and the biopolitics of labour control

10.          Study Week TBC

11.          Exceptional spaces: From the enclave to the zone           

12.          What can be done? Exploring labour internationalisms


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

  • 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.


Employability skills

Analytical skills
Oral communication
Written communication

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 50%
Written assignment (inc essay) 50%

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.


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


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,


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


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 2
Seminars 1
Independent study hours
Independent study 195

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Jamie Doucette Unit coordinator

Additional notes

You might like to do this course if you enjoyed the following:


GEOG10101 Geographies of Globalization; GEOG20101 Economic Geography: Understanding the Economy, Creating Spaces; GEOG21311 Creative Geographies; GEOG21432 Moral Geographies; GEOG21422 Everyday Geographies; GEOG 31011 Decolonizing Geographies


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