Selection of news on women workers in China

Attached below is a short selection of some relevant news clippings from the Chinese media over the past 12 months which highlight some cases of discrimination against female workers and reveal the concern felt within China over the problems relating to sexual discrimination, lack of equality for women in the workforce, working conditions and the plight of the rural population. The selection is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to illuminate the range of issues involved.

[The translations are CLB's own]

Labour Law and special provisions for female workers

Workers’ Daily 15 January 2003

It is difficult to punish enterprises violating the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women because the laws do not detail or mention punishment for non compliance. Consequently women workers, especially those in the private sector, are very vulnerable. Recent research in Jilin, showed that 85 percent of female workers in the private sector received wages less than the average provincial wage, they do not get social security insurance, and no housing or overtime pay. 24 out of the 25 enterprises interviewed did not provide any special care for female staff in their 4 stages, and the only remaining enterprise only provided a shower room as special care.

Seventy two percent of female employee’s medical expenses during three of the special periods were not covered, 49 percent of pregnant employees were not allowed to take leave for medical checkups, 53 percent of pre-maternity checkups were not reimbursed and 64percent of maternity medical expenses were not covered.

China Woman News 15 May 2003

The first Female Labour Court of the PRC was recently created in Beijing. The Court is to have jurisdiction not over women’s collective complaints against employers but specifically against those claims involving women’s special rights recognizing their special physical status. According to the Labour Law, during pregnancy, maternity leave, menstruation and breast-feeding of babies less than one year old (constituting the four periods of special recognition) employers are prohibited to engage women in work in high altitudes, in low temperatures, in cold water or work with Grade III physical intensive labour. In practice however, not many employers take the law seriously.

Many enterprises create employment contracts stating that for a specified number of years, female employees are not allowed to bear children or they will be fired. Some employers force pregnant women to quit by forcing them to work in dangerous or strenuous working conditions. Some contracts state that, in contradiction to Chinese Labour Law, during maternity leave the employees will not be paid and the employer will not cover their medical expenses.


Shaanxi Workers’ News 28 January 2003

7.1 percent of urban women surveyed said they encountered sexual discrimination when they applied for jobs while only 3.3 percent of males had the same experience. Staff from the human resources department said “we expect female graduates to concentrate more on dating than their work. If they get married and have children we will have to pay them maternity leave and it is then unlikely they can be assigned to work elsewhere.” It is also a common belief that women are not as committed to their careers and would be petty in the workplace and create trouble among coworkers.

Less than 50 percent of women in Shaanxi receive unemployment insurance, maternity insurance and housing subsidies. In some cases, contracts write that only male staff and married female staff are entitled to housing allowances, because they believe that single female employees might change jobs if they get married and it would be a waste of resources to give them housing.

Workers’ Daily 22 January 2003

In Dec 2002, two female migrant workers were badly beaten in the street when they attempted to get back their 350 and 100 Yuan wage-arrears. While wage-arrears are a serious problem in China, female workers face more serious trouble than males. Most employers believe that women were relatively weak, less educated [than the male workers] and less likely to sue.

Forced Searches

Information Times 31 January 2003

On 6 August, 2002, supervisors in a diamond factory in Zonghua City, Guangzhou, arbitrarily undressed some 80 female and 10 male workers to check for stolen diamonds when one employee lost a pack of 4 diamonds. On that day, workers were not allowed to leave, to break to eat or drink or close the toilet door when they went to the bathroom until 9pm. Workers were forced to sign an agreement that allowed the factory supervisors to search their belongings and bodies, even those women in menstruation were asked to remove all their clothes.

When the case was publicized and government investigated the case, the factory apologized and paid each employee 1,000 Yuan as compensation if they agreed to sign a letter giving up the right to file any other claims. 6 female workers refused these arrangements and sued the factory for harassment and causing them psychological harm.

Finally the court ruled that the factory had to write an open apology and post it in the factory. And the factory also had to pay the other 6 workers each 4,000 Yuan as compensation.

Xinhuanet 15 Sept 2003

A female cleaner in Shanghai attempted suicide after being forced to undress, when the supervisor at her workplace claimed that he lost 1,000 Yuan and she was suspected of the theft.

Understanding of Labour Law

Jiangsu Workers’ News 16 May 2003

In research on female workers’ understanding of the Labour Law, especially those in the private sector, 34 percent of the interviewees had received only primary school education. Only 29 percent had heard of the Labour Law, Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women, Labour Law on Female Workers’ Protection and Mother and Child Health Law and most of them did not know how to use the law to protect them.

Working Conditions

Hebei Workers’ News 27 May 2003

Many enterprises, including those in the public sector, have rules on “time spent in the washroom”. Liu, the vice-director of a village credit union, was charged 800 Yuan and prohibited from work for one half month, due to “spending too long in the washroom”. However, it was discovered that the union office washroom had been locked for two years and she had to go to another place to find a washroom.

China Workers Journal June 2003

In research in Dalian, Liaoning, 1500 female workers were interviewed. Only 30.1 percent were found to work have less than 40 hours during the week, 28.5 percent worked 41-45 hours, 15.7 percent 46-50 hours, 4.2 percent 51-55 hours, 6.1 percent 56-60 hours and 6.5 percent worked more than 60 hours. Even in the SOEs, the female workers seldom worked less than 8 hours a day.

Gao Lirong,

In Shenzhen, the gender ratio of migrant workers is 1 male to 2 females and in some industries, such as handbag factories, the ratio is 1 in 50. The reason is the enterprises prefer young female workers because 1) they usually accept a lower wages and fewer benefits, 2) there is a large supply of female workers and the factories usually get rid of the older employees [once they are more skilled and begin to bargain for better treatment]; 3) fewer rules protect this type of female worker and the factories can fire them whenever they want.

However, in places other than Pearl River Delta, where the staff turnover rate is relatively lower, most enterprises [88 percent in a research done by Nanning General Trade Union] prefer male workers than females, because believe women workers, who are of reproduction age, are less productive and more expensive to hire.

Guangzhou Evening News 11 March 2003

Some graduates reported that they encountered unfair terms in contracts, for example “clauses prohibiting bearing bear children in the following five years, or the company had the right to end the contract.” In some recruitment advertisements, it is explicitly written “only males” or “males are preferred”.

Occupational Hazards

Nanfang Workers’ News 6 June 2003

Article 29 of Occupational Illness Precaution Law states that the employers should be held responsible for damage or illness to the workers due to working conditions. However, in Guangdong, medical fees for occupational illness have risen to 2 million Yuan and are not reimbursed by employers.

Information Times 11 December 2003

There are more than 400,000 enterprises at the city and county level in Guangdong with more than 5 million workers. Three million of them encounter various levels of occupational hazards, for example in footwear, furniture-production, and textile industries. Chemicals are widely used but no warnings or precaution measures are provided to workers. 22 December 2003

When occupational accidents happen, it is usually difficult to hold the factory responsible, because 1) the enterprise will try to hide it, by not telling the workers their working condition are hazardous or ignore the accident, 2) the migrant workers do not know the definition of occupational accident, [some think the accidents are due to bad luck, or lack of sleep] and unaware of the legal procedures, 3) the local governments usually support the interest of enterprises and insurance companies instead of the migrant workers.

Source Unknown 3 January 2004
In the Pearl River Delta, lots of workers are under age, for example 15 and hired from inner provinces. They live in crowded, dark and dirty rooms, locked during the day [so that the others won’t discover them], work from 4 pm until 8 am the next morning [more than 14 hours a day] and no days off. They are given fake identity cards, proving that they are old enough to work, but most of the time, they are not allowed to go out or talk to strangers. Other than two poor meals and bad accommodation, they are not usually paid during the first 2 years of work, which the bosses call “educational time”. Starting in the 3rd year, they get 2-3 Yuan a day, which the bosses keep for them until the end of the year. And during the year, they make excuses to deduct from these wages. Even if the children want to run away, they don’t have enough money for the transportation.

Shaanxi Workers’ News 5 November 2003

Most enterprises prefer hiring very young female workers, especially those younger than 18, because they are less likely to get married and pregnant than women from 18 to 30. This causes discrimination against older women and they usually face being “laid-off” when they become pregnant or after giving birth, when they are believed to be less productive because they have to take care of children. Also work insurance, especially items related to maternity, is seldom covered. In a recent survey in Shaanxi, only 2 out of 126 private enterprises provided reproduction insurance programs for their migrant workers, but the local women workers were covered.

Earlier Retirement Age for Women

China Workers Journal June 2003

In retrenchment programs in SOEs, one of the common practices is to lower the retirement age of women workers. Before the economic reforms, SOEs provided better terms and relatively equal hiring practices for female workers. If this retrenchment plan were carried out, women would be disproportionately affected. Forty five is now the new age of retirement for women workers and in some cases, 35. Female cadres will be first downgraded to worker status, which means a lowering of the retirement age by 5 years. In many places, female workers retirement is 10 years earlier than the retirement age of male workers and this causes economic hardship among women.

Wage Inequality

China Women 31 March 2003
Nineteen point eight percent of the female work force earns less than 500 Yuan a month, 11.6percent of males earn in the same range. Only 6.6 percent of the female work force earns more than 2000 Yuan but 12.6 percent of the male work force earns the same.

For those earning:

2000-3000 Yuan : there are 37.2 percent female and 62.8 percent male

3001-5000 Yuan : there are 32.2 percent female and 67.8 percent male

5000 Yuan up : there are 14.4 percent female and 85.6 percent male

Rural Life

China Youth Daily 26 February 2004

Does a woman have the right to use her share of land after she is married?

Zhou Yuanlan a female farmer in Xiangshan village, Guixi city, Jiangxi province. In 1986 she married a worker but still is classified with a rural farming resident status. In 1993, the village committee of Xiangshan village took away her right to use her share of land. The reason was because she had got married. The committee explained its reasoning by stating that this was a “rural custom” – when a woman marries she has someone to depend on [financially] and therefore need not have her land nor need she receive any benefits from the village. They also stated that “if this custom is broken, rural China could be in an uproar”.

People’s Daily 16 September 2003

Three goals set for China's rural education reform

China's Ministry of Education has set three goals to promote education reform in rural areas.
The goals include: to promote nine-year compulsory education and to eradicate illiteracy among young and middle-aged people in the west; to improve the educational quality and reduce the number of dropout students in rural junior middle schools; and to cultivate rural schools into training bases to help peasants find or create jobs and become more affluent through compulsory, professional and adult education. People in affluent areas would be encouraged to help poor students in rural areas. Statistics show that in the west of China, 327 counties do not enforce compulsory education, with 60 counties failing to promote full primary school education, and 260 counties have illiterate young or middle-aged people. China still has 85 million illiterate citizens, of which three quarters live in China's rural areas.

Daily Telegraph, London 3 March 2003

Chinese Peasantry: a Survey is an expose of the suffering of the almost one billion peasant farmers in China and has had huge success. It discloses the poverty and corruption affecting the rural population, whose exploitation is the foundation for China's perceived urban economic miracles. It describes farmers being beaten for complaining about corruption, local officials covering up production figures and a tax system which effectively forces the poor to subsidize the rich. All of this helps to explain the exodus of workers from farms to low-paid, often dangerous jobs in the cities or further afield in foreign countries. After the magazine sold 100,000 copies, it was then published as a book.

The book states that while recent economic reforms in China may have initially benefited farmers, taxes and illegal fees have grown and farmers pay three times as much in tax as a city dweller, on a sixth of the income. "Those who have not left the big cities think the whole of China is like Beijing or Shanghai," they wrote. "We have seen unimaginable poverty, unimaginable evil, unimaginable suffering and desperation, unimaginable resistance and silence."

[Note 1]: Much of this material has been taken from the lively and informative “A History of International Women's Day in words and images” by Joyce Stevens. For the Cyber Edition please visit

March 2004

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