For Ma Liang, the week-long 2006 Chinese Spring Festival holiday was a dismal affair. No firecrackers. No banquets. No visitors. And very little time spent with his family.
This is the capital of northeast China's Liaoning Province, a city formerly lined with industrial smoke stacks, and now plagued by falling productivity and rising unemployment after market-oriented reforms were launched.
The municipal authorities, with various aid programs, have made many attempts to assist workers laid off by ailing State-owned enterprises (SOEs).
Ma Liang's story is not uncommon. He is 45, the breadwinner in a family of three, and lost his job two months before the festive season.
He worked in the boiler room of a State-owned company until last October, when he was told there was "no need for you to come here any longer."
The family found it difficult to survive on the 600 yuan (US$75) his wife made doing odd jobs. And in the cold winter, the family's company-financed heating service was also cut off.
"The previous spring festivals always meant co-workers visiting each other and family reunions," he told China Daily. But this year, he is unemployed, and no longer has any colleagues to visit.
Ma even felt ashamed to face his two nieces because he didn't have money for their yasuiqian (money given to children during spring festival).
"My wife does not allow me to tell others that I've lost my job for fear that they would look down on me as incapable," Ma said. "I myself feel ashamed."
To minimize expenses over the holiday period, Ma sent his teenage daughter to live with his brother while his wife, who lost her job a decade earlier, took care of her paralyzed mother. The three were at different places during the holiday.
"(Losing my job) is like cutting off my blood vessels," Ma said. "I can't even afford fireworks. They are meaningless, after all."
Like Ma, many in the once booming industrial powerhouse of the nation are in a similar situation: Laid off in their 40s or 50s, with aged parents to take care of and children in school to support at the same time.
Even though the municipal government took measures last year to create new positions, organize training, offer small loans to help with start-up ventures, and encourage firms to employ the laid-off workers, some women in their 40s and men in their 50s are unable to compete with the surplus of younger workers.
Ma's case is even worse. "I am one of the youngest of the group of people who got their contracts terminated," he said. "There were more than 20 of us, and none of us were given a reason why we had to go." Now, even though he believes the old job was "really suitable" for him, he must figure out what to do next.
When he was laid off, Ma was paid out 30,000 yuan (US$3,750) by his employer. But the amount was much lower than he was expecting, and according to his calculation, his annual expenditure including medical expenses, heating and his child's tuition would amount to roughly 23,000 yuan (US$2,800).
During the Spring Festival even eggplant was a luxury for Ma and his family because vegetable prices doubled and even tripled during the festival season.
Almost four months after he was laid off, his former employer still hasn't issued him the certificate necessary for welfare and assistance for unemployed workers from the government.
Around the same time, authorities announced that the country's registered unemployment rate had dropped to under 5 percent. Of the 5 million retrenched workers from State-owned enterprises nationwide, 1 million of those in their 40s and 50s had the opportunity to return to work.
The municipal government also pledged a number of preferential policies for unemployed workers. Prior to the festival, the government promised to provide small amounts of cash and daily goods to needy households over the holiday period. But without a proper certificate, Ma was temporarily ineligible for any such assistance.
But he is confident that he will get the help he deserves before long, when the paperwork gets done. He told China Daily: "My biggest wish in 2006 is for the government to approve a small loan so that I can start a business and truly enjoy the preferential policy promised to unemployed workers."
Even for those who do receive unemployment benefits from the government, like Wang Xiaoming, life has not been much easier, as she strives to achieve certain things such as securing an apartment for her family.
The former Shenyang automobile remanufacturing worker spent the 2006 Spring Festival just as she does every year: preparing dumplings with the whole family and watching the annual gala on CCTV, the national broadcaster.
Travel? To Wang, this was unheard of. Even booking a New Year's Eve banquet at a local restaurant was beyond her imagination. "We just don't have the resources," she said.
Wang was laid off shortly before she reached retirement age. She could get by on her monthly unemployment benefit of around 500 yuan (US$60); but her 26-year-old son, unmarried, hasn't been able to find an ideal job and continues to depend on his parents.
In northeast China, the so-called rust belt of the nation, it is common for unemployed young people to survive off their parents' income, some of whom themselves are unemployed and covered only by a meagre welfare program.
In early 2005, Wang decided she could no longer put up with the living conditions of her family three adults cramped into a small one-bedroom apartment and purchased a new apartment in installments, which they hoped could also serve as a stake for their son's marriage.
But in order to cover the deposit, the woman had to borrow 40,000 yuan (US$5,000) in cash from others, and allow the creditor to keep her bank-book, which won't be returned to her until the debt is repaid.
To begin with, without any income, the woman and her husband had to work odd jobs to make a living. It was not until last September that Wang's future started to look brighter: She found a job doing cleaning work in a wealthy residential neighborhood. But she got the job only by lying about her age.
"See, I was 53, and they said they were only recruiting people under 45," she said. Age discrimination is still rampant in the Chinese labor market, and a proper solution to the problem is yet to be found.
Wang's daughter prepared dozens of photocopies of her mother's ID indicating that she fell within the 38 to 45 age bracket, hoping it would make it easier for her mother to re-enter the job market.
"You don't even need to fake the ID. A bogus photocopy will suffice," Wang said. "However old you want to be, I can make you be it (that age)." In fact, the other five cleaners working with Wang all offered false age identifications. A 64-year-old woman claimed to be 11 years younger than her real age.
The job requires a cleaner to work 42 hours a week for 400 yuan (US$50) a month. The employer did not sign a contract with the workers and often delayed paying them under the pretext of financial difficulties, the employees said.
But Wang still treasures the job. "I just think myself lucky that I could find something," she said. Her 60-year-old husband, in contrast, was turned down every time he applied for a job.
When asked about her New Year's plan, the woman said she was ready to face another tough year. But the couple hope that by 2007 they might pay off the debts to their friends and get back onto welfare. And according to the plan, their son will hopefully get married. "Life will hopefully get easier by then," she said.
By that stage, as some national lawmakers are trying to do right now, China will hopefully have equal opportunity laws in place and discrimination in the job market will be outlawed such as age discrimination against people in the bracket just before the legal retirement age.
In the real market, discriminatory attitudes can be evaded, as Wang's case demonstrates. But age discrimination affects many people and is an insult to China's constitution and rule of law.
(China Daily April 7, 2006)