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Women in the Workplace: A Great Leap Backward

An investigation conducted by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) indicates that existing laws and regulations pertaining to women in the workplace leave much to be desired. The biggest problems women are facing today are reemployment after being laid off; unequal protection, rights and benefits in state-owned enterprises (SOEs); and discrimination, harassment and abuse in private enterprises.

At one time, the average income of Chinese women was about 80 percent that of men, making China one of few developing countries in the world where women's salaries approached the level of their male colleagues'. Even in the United States, Canada and most European countries, women's wages nowadays average only 75 percent of men's, according to a report published recently in the Washington Observer. But since China's economic reforms began in the 1980s, the gender gap in income has widened.

Some enterprises will not even consider hiring women. Although very young women may be able to secure a job contract, women who are considered likely to have children in the near future are passed over.

The ACFTU investigation reveals that some enterprises won't sign contracts with female employees, and among those that do there are many that simply ignore the terms.

Some work units' employment contracts fail to carry clauses pertaining to protection of female employees, and omit social insurance benefits.

Many women are exposed to serious occupational safety hazards, particularly those working in latex, shoe, chemicals, porcelain, casting and toy factories. Levels of dust, noise and toxic substances frequently fail to meet safety standards by a wide margin.

Small factories in labor-intensive industries often use outdated equipment with backward technologies in poor surroundings. Risk of accident and hidden damage that may take years to show up are common.

In years past, incidents such as acute poisoning, explosions and fires have taken away many female workers' lives and disabled many more.

Regular gynecological checkups, the cost of which the employer is supposed to cover, are often not conducted. Even some SOEs cancel checkups for their female employees, saying that they are currently strapped for cash and can't pay for them. In fact, they have never provided checkups for their women workers.

Non-SOEs very rarely provide maternity benefits, nor do they accommodate the special needs of women during menstrual periods, pregnancy or after the birth of a child. Some female employees still work high above the ground or in low temperatures, or carry out hard physical labor while menstruating. Women who are seven months pregnant are scheduled to work night shifts in some factories.

Some non-SOEs terminate job contracts of pregnant women in order to avoid covering medical fees or providing maternity leave. It is not unheard of for an enterprise's contract to contain a clause forbidding pregnancy.

Some struggling SOEs and most non-SOEs don't pay their share of insurance fees for female workers, so that women who do bear children must do so entirely at their own expense and without income during any maternity leave.

A number of female employees are not given holiday leave and often work overtime without timely payment in non-SOEs, especially in the garment, shoemaking and catering industries. The ACFTU's investigation reveals that many women work 76 hours per week, with a few working as many as 90 hours.

Some enterprises have harsh regulations and severe discipline, including beatings, body searches and insults. The dignity and human rights of female workers are not guaranteed.

The ACFTU report states that sex discrimination is the norm in today's workplace. The progress made in the early decades of the PRC has in many cases been abandoned in the years since economic reform began.

China promulgated the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women on April 3, 1992, and it went into effect on October 1 that year. Many other laws and regulations address women's issues, like the Trade Union Law, the Marriage Law, the Regulations on Work Safety for Female Employees, Trial Measures for Working Women's Maternity Insurance and the Regulation on Mother and Infant Health Care.

But the ACFTU's report states that existing laws and regulations have failed to keep up with changes in the employment environment. This contributes to the vulnerability of women in the workplace. The main problem with existing laws is the absence of detailed enforcement terms and punishment for violations. Essentially, the teeth are removed from the laws, providing tacit tolerance of discrimination against women.

(China.org.cn by Wang Zhiyong, March 22, 2004)

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