Pricing the Human Body: Evidence from Industrial Injury Cases in China

Saturday, 4 July 2015: 10:15 AM-11:45 AM
CLM.3.04 (Clement House)
Enying Zheng, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, United Kingdom
This paper unpacks the contested process of pricing the human body through a unique dataset of all 294 work-related injury cases handled by a flagship labor dispute arbitration commission in 2010 in southern China, supplemented by a survey of 10,169 insured workers between 2000 and 2011.  Despite a highly standardized compensation system, there are considerable variations in practice in arbitration processes and arbitral awards.  Qualitative and quantitative analyses demonstrate that the human body is priced by the labor capacity embodied in it, which becomes quantifiable through wage payment.  An efficiency-oriented labor market (e.g., the prevalence of performance related pay) and the recent labor standards campaign in adopting standard employment contracts together set the scene for contestation over the injured workers’ wages.  Arbitrators who are guided by the prescribed compensatory standards tend to discount workers’ self-reported wages, which as a compensatory standard leads to lower arbitral awards.  Having a written employment contract lowers the amount of arbitral awards by 35.6 percent, while a 1 percent increase in the wage discount reduces awards by 1.3 percent.  By these means, the process of compensating for industrial injury results in the pricing of the human body.  This paper contributes to the market morality literature by examining practice-based legitimacy contestations in a market scenario of forced exchanges and by focusing on the price-setting mechanisms.  This research also enriches a contemporary understanding of labor commodification, showcases an empirically-grounded study of the dispute resolution process, and extends empirical legal studies by specifying the caveat of written contracts.