CCGL9057 Global Issues

Work: From Factory Floor to Our Robot Future


Course Description

Look at your iPhone. Or your shrimp har gow. Or your t-shirt. Now, think of the workers who made them for you. Who mines the metals for your phone? Who handles the shrimp for your yum cha? Who spins the cloth for your shirt? Behind our stuff is a hidden global network of people – people who often work dangerous jobs for little pay. This course helps students to see the people behind the things and invites us to ask: How can *we* shape the world of work?

We begin by examining two moments when work was transformed: the Industrial Revolution and the Asian economic “miracle.” We start at the factory and see how movies depicted the smoke, the machines, the assembly line as a “model” modern workspace; but, we also ask whether the modern factory actually started outside the “West” in China and the Caribbean.

We then explore how factories powered Asia’s “miraculous” economic growth after World War II by examining the lives of “factory girls,” “salarymen,” and labour activists in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and above all in Hong Kong. Finally, we ask how globalization is creating a new world of work beyond the factory, and wonder: if robots come to take our jobs in a few years, what will “work” even mean?

Throughout the course, we will discuss interesting and fun media examples, including movies, advertisements, music, and photographs.

Course Learning Outcomes

On completing the course, students will be able to:

  1. Critically and creatively reflect on the world of work, understanding how and why we do the work we do. Connect work with issues such as migration, politics, war, and power.
  2. Analyze the lives and concerns of workers from a diversity of class, gender, regional, and colonial positions.
  3. Describe and analyze how work and workers connect across time and place, embedding Hong Kong workers and industrialization in historical and geographic context. Gain expertise on how types of work succeed and fail in
    helping workers.
  4. Creatively and critically explain the worlds of work and workers that are hidden behind familiar objects and everyday events.

Offer Semester and Day of Teaching

First semester (Wed)


Study Load

Activities Number of hours
Lectures 24
Tutorials 8
Reading / Self-study 38
Assessment: Essay / Report writing 44
Assessment: Presentation (incl preparation) 6
Total: 120

Assessment: 100% coursework

Assessment Tasks Weighting
Meeting participation 25
Mid-term essay 25
Final project 50

Required Reading / Viewing

  • Chaplin, C. (Director). (1936). Modern Times. [Movie]
  • Chen, A. (2014, October 23). The laborers who keep [inappropriate] pics and beheadings out of your Facebook feed. Wired. From https://www.wired.com/2014/10/content-moderation/
  • Constable, N. (2015, January). Migrant motherhood, ‘failed migration’, and the gendered risks of precarious labour. TRaNS: Trans-Regional and -National Studies of Southeast Asia, 3(1).
  • Kim, S. -K. (1992). Women workers and the labor movement in South Korea. In F. Rothstein & M. Blim (Eds.), Anthropology and the global factory (pp. 220-237). New York: Bergin and Garvey.
  • Kurosawa, A. (Director). (1952). Ikiru. [Selections from movie]
  • McDowell, R., Mason, M., & Mendoza, M. (2015, March 25). AP Investigation: Slaves may have caught the fish you bought. The Associated Press. From https://www.ap.org/explore/seafood-from-slaves/ap-investigation-slaves-may-have-caught-the-fish-you-bought.html
  • Nadeem, S. (2011/2013). Dead ringers: How outsourcing is changing the way Indians understand themselves. Princeton University Press.[Excerpts]
  • Ngai, P., & Chan, J. (2012, July). Global capital, the state, and Chinese workers: The Foxconn experience.  Modern China, 38(4), 383-410.
  • Ogasawara, Y. (1998). Office ladies and salaried men: Power, gender, and work in Japanese companies. University of California Press. [Brief excerpts]
  • Salaff, J. W. (1995). Working daughters of Hong Kong. Columbia University Press. [Brief excerpts]
  • Suo, M. (Director). (1996). Shall We Dance? [Selections from movie]
  • Art and music about work (e.g., Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals, Charles Sheeler’s photos of Ford’s River Rouge auto factory)
  • Brief news articles on current events such as robots, digital work, slavery/indenture, and the gig economy (to be announced)
  • Brief oral histories of workers in Hong Kong and the U.S.

Recommended Reading / Viewing

  • Collins, J. L. (2003). Threads: Gender, Labor, and Power in the Global Apparel Industry. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Ehrenreich, B., & Hochschild, A. R. (2004). Global woman: Nannies, maids, and sex workers in the new economy.
  • Gillette, M. (2016). China’s porcelain capital: The rise, fall and reinvention of ceramics in Jingdezhen. Bloomsbury Academic.
  • Gulati, S. (Director). (2005). Nalini by day, Nancy by night. [Documentary on Indian call centers]
  • Kingsolver, A., & Gunewardena, N. (2007/2008). The gender of globalization: Women navigating cultural and economic marginalities. School for Advanced Research Press.
  • Kondo, D. (1990). Crafting selves: Power, gender, and discourses of identity in a Japanese workplace. The University of Chicago Press.
  • Lee, C. K. (1998). Gender and the South China miracle: Two worlds of factory women. University of California Press.
  • Peled, M. X. (Director). (2006). China blue. [Documentary on Chinese blue jean factories]
  • Shehata, S. (2010). Shop floor culture and politics in Egypt. Suny Press. [Plastic Sandals, Tea and Time: Shop Floor Culture and Politics in Egypt]
  • Shin, K. -S. (2016). The girl who wrote loneliness: A novel. Pegasus Books.
  • Świtek, B. (2016). Reluctant intimacies: Japanese eldercare in Indonesian hands. Berghahn Books.
  • Wharton, A. S. (2009, August 11). The sociology of emotional labor. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 147-165.

Recommended Websites


Course Co-ordinator and Teacher(s)

Course Co-ordinator Contact
Dr J.T. Petrulis
School of Humanities (History), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2874
Email: petrulis@hku.hk
Teacher(s) Contact
Dr J.T. Petrulis
School of Humanities (History), Faculty of Arts
Tel: 3917 2874
Email: petrulis@hku.hk