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Valuing the Human Body by Discounting Labor Capacity: Evidence from Industrial Injury Cases in China

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This paper unpacks a contested process of valuing the human body in what I call the market analogy of “forced exchanges” drawing on a unique dataset of all 294 work-related injury cases handled by a flagship labor dispute arbitration commission in 2010 in southern China. Within this system with a list of compensatory categories and the corresponding standards and benchmarks, there still emerge considerable variations in arbitration processes and arbitral awards, controlling for arbitration requests. In this research setting, I argue that the human body is measured by the labor capacity embodied in it, which has become commensurable and quantifiable through wages. The prevalence of a performance-pay system and a lack of tailored contracts result in a contested calculation of wages by dispute parties. Guided by prescribed compensatory standards, arbitrators often discount workers’ self-reported wages, which lead to a smaller amount of arbitral awards (vs. the arbitration request). Based on both quantitative and qualitative analysis of these 294 cases supplemented by interviews and a survey of 10,169 injured workers in the same region in the 2010s, this paper specifies two findings: 1) a one percent increase in wage discount led to a 1.3 percent decrease in the amount of arbitral awards; and 2) having a written employment contract counterintuitively lowered the amount of arbitral awards by 35.6 percent. This paper contributes to the market morality literature in controversial human body markets (broadly defined) by extending prior research primarily on the market formation stage to investigating the ground level legitimacy contestation in pricing peculiar goods against fictional market reasoning and techniques. This research also enriches research on dispute resolution and empirical legal studies.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Science Seminars series.

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