Women Workers First to be Sacked
Despite the existence of laws that stipulate certain rights for women workers (please see CLBs special report on women workers in China The Unofficial Report published in 1995), the reality for working class women in China is that they have rarely enjoyed real protection in the workplace. Official organisations, such as the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) or the All China Federation of Women (ACFW), have promoted the welfare of women workers only within the constrictions that come with accepting both party leadership, and the broader and often discriminatory economic policies of the government. The idea of women workers having the right to organise themselves in order to safeguard legal rights has always been out of the question.
The massive wave of lay-offs now sweeping China has at last put women workers at the top of the employers list of priorities: women are almost always first to be sacked or laid off and make up 60% of all unemployed workers in China. The official statistics speak for themselves:
- As of March 1997, there were 420,000 laid-off women workers in Liaoning province, 70% of the total;
- As of January 1996, there were 110,000 laid-off workers in Beijing, of whom over 55% were women;
- As of January 1996, there were 10,060 laid-off textile workers in Beijing, of whom more than 7,000 were women;
- In Henan province, 76.4% of laid-off women workers are aged between 26 and 45;
- In Anhui province, surveys in the cities of Hefei and Tongling revealed that the ratio of laid-off women under the age of 40 is 80% and 95% respectively of all laid-off women workers (in Hefei 38% are under the age of 30)
Women workers often face extra hardships after being sacked. Many families will reject a women as a potential daughter-in-law if she is unemployed. According to research by the Womens Studies Centre of the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (1), 35% of all the unemployed women they surveyed thought that being laid off had had a negative impact on their marital relations and family life in general. Some reported suffering domestic violence.
In Beijing, Zhou Guizhi, a 28-year-old worker interviewed by a journalist from the official Workers Daily(2), said she had been laid off in 1994 when pregnant. Her husband began beating her so she sued for divorce. However, the courts insisted that custody of the child be given to the violent father, because Zhou herself had no guaranteed income. The father now denies Zhou access to the child.
Re-employment - Dream Fantasy
According to the Shanghai survey cited above, 35% of laid-off women reported they would be satisfied with a new job offering a salary of between Rmb 500 and 600. A further 34% expressed the hope to earn between Rmb 700 and 800. Over 70% of the women said that the most pressing task was to find work that would guarantee them at least a minimum standard of living. A further 16% hoped to obtain a salary of up to Rmb 1,000 and another 21% of over Rmb 1,000. (3)
In fact, re-employment opportunities in China mirror the difficulties of Hong Kong workers laid off in the early 1990s. At that time, Hong Kongs manufacturers raced into China to set up factories in the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (SEZ), where wages and taxes are lower. In the process, they laid off half a million Hong Kong workers. The reality in both Hong Kong and China is that the vast majority of laid-off workers who manage to find new jobs have to work in dirty and exhausting conditions. In China, most take home less than Rmb 400 per month. The contracts that go with these jobs provide minimal, if any, medical benefits and no compensation in the case of industrial injury. Of the workers in the Shanghai survey, only 8% said they could manage to meet living costs on wages of under Rmb 400 per month. This picture of sacked women workers being forced into low-paid and poor working conditions is reflected in other surveys. In Beijing, 84.5% of women who had been laid off said they urgently needed work. Only 32.9% had been successful. In Ningxia the re-employment rate for women workers is only 8.46%.(4)
Unemployment - Nightmare Reality
In Shanghai, the JinDa International Silk Company has 16,000 workers on the books. Of these, 10,000 have already been laid off and there are only 1,500 workers actively working at the factory. Fifty three of the women workers still employed have been transferred to an entertainment section. This section has been investigated by the police on a number of occasions on suspicion of being involved in prostitution. The so-called entertainment section has now been temporarily closed down and the women who were transferred to it have appealed to the local Labour Disputes and Arbitration Committee, demanding that their contracts be cancelled and they be transferred back to their original work units. This means that they will have to try and survive on the Rmb 180 per month living costs which laid-off workers are entitled to receive.
Also in Shanghai, a group of laid-off workers had managed to find casual work as shop-assistants in the Tian Shan Shopping Mall. However, according to the regulations at the Mall, only formal employees were allowed to eat in the canteen and casualized factory workers were barred. This meant that the casual workers were forced to eat their lunch next to the toilets and out of sight. In order not to damage the image of the glitzy shopping centre, some even had to eat their lunch actually in the toilets.
The Spectre of Long -Term Unemployment
According to the Shanghai survey, 54% of the women interviewed said they were not optimistic about the future. Roughly 10% said they were profoundly pessimistic. The survey also revealed that 41% of those questioned hoped that work units in the process of hiring workers would raise wages and a further 59% hoped that age limits could be relaxed. A further 46% said that they believed they had adequate skills to offer. Indeed, one positive outcome of the survey was the fact that women had faith in themselves to find re-employment, but were constantly hitting a barrage of social prejudice from employers, husbands and society in general. Huang Shaohua, a sacked textile worker summed up the common experience of most working class women:
Think about it! Most of us are only middle-school graduates who went straight from school to factory. We worked hard and thought our jobs were secure. Nobody said they would sack us. They never gave us a chance to re-train and now its too late. I am middle-aged and dont have any technical skills. My parents need looking after and the kids are still at home. At my age, the bosses are just not interested and if they are, the wages are the lowest around. Ive been on the dole for three years now and still cant find a job. Nobody is interested in ordinary people. The bosses, the government? Nobody cares.
Another sacked Beijing worker who passed her time at a local womens club said:
There is no work for us at our age. Its really hard. When we were younger and could have studied, all the schools were shut and they packed us off to countryside. Its not that I want to be rich. I dont have the qualifications to be well off, I just want to stop feeling so insecure and worrying about the bills all the time. At my age, Ive got no chance of getting any new skills and can only just get by and see that kids are brought up. Our generation? Theyre finished with us.
(1) Published in China Women's Daily (Zhongguo Funu Bao), 3 March, 1997
(2) Workers' Daily (Gongren Ribao), 28 January, 1997
(3) China Women's Daily (Zhongguo Funu Bao), 3 March, 1997
(4) Workers Daily (Gongren Ribao), 10 March, 1997