Why can only graduates get protection from employment discrimination in China?

15 May 2014

It is that time of the year again in China: Record numbers of graduates will soon enter an increasingly competitive job market. And once again, the Chinese government is promising to do everything it can to help them get a job.

This time, the State Council has issued a Notice on Improving Employment and Entrepreneurship for Graduates from Higher Education Institutes in 2014 (关于做好2014年全国普通高等学校毕业生就业创业工作的通知). Amid the usual bland restating of existing laws, regulations and government policy, the Notice does contain at least one specific admonition to employers, namely that they should not discriminate against job seekers on the grounds of their household registration (户籍).

Many employers do blatantly state in their recruitment notices that only locals can apply and this has led to several high profile protests over the last year. In October last year, for example, a graduate from Anhui sued the Nanjing Municipal Bureau of Human Resources and Social Security after it specified that applicants for a job as a telephone consultant at the bureau must have a Nanjing household registration.

It is good to see that the State Council is taking public opinion into consideration in its attempts to make the job market fairer. However, the Notice’s admonition on household registration discrimination has two rather obvious limitations: Firstly, it specifies that the prohibition only applies to provincial capitals and below (省会及以下) so presumably employers in Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing etc. have nothing to worry about. Secondly, it specifies that only this year’s graduates (应届毕业生) qualify for protection, graduates from previous years are on their own, as are all those job seekers who never even went to college.

While it is true that graduates have tended to be the most visible victims of employment discrimination in China, this is only because they are far more likely to have the time and resources to file high-profile complaints. Blue-collar workers are also subject to widespread and routine discrimination based on gender, age, height and appearance (see the factory recruitment advertisement below) but all too often they simply tolerate this as a natural part of the workplace environment in China.

Moreover, you are very unlikely to see State Council officials making a fuss about the inequities in the job market for factory workers and shop assistants, but China’s precious graduates are always deserving of (some) assistance.

Such attitudes are a throwback to the time – a decade or so ago – when college graduates were something special. But now, according to Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, just about half of the 15 million young people entering the job market this year are college graduates. So why not issue regulations to protect all job seekers and just forget about this increasingly meaningless divide between graduates and non-graduates? 

Furthermore, it is important to note that a far more serious problem than that of graduate unemployment is the lack of job opportunities for the elderly in China, especially unskilled workers and those with health problems. Most middle-aged and elderly workers do not have a pension and need to keep working just to survive but the only jobs they can get are in the low-paid, insecure and temporary positions that young graduates would deem to be beneath them.

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