Rural teachers raise age discrimination issue in their quest for equal pay

28 January 2022

On 21 October 2021, teachers in Yanshan county, Hebei province, posted online to demand a policy change to eliminate age discrimination in recruiting teachers for a “special post” program. The Yanshan teachers wrote in an open letter that if the government ignores their demands, “hundreds of us will petition the provincial capital and even Beijing for the central government to find a solution.” 

Their appeal highlights the longstanding disparities in opportunities for rural versus urban citizens and age discrimination in the civil service. In CLB’s 2016 report on the teaching profession in China, we outline the requirements in China’s 1993 Teachers Law, disparities in pay and working conditions, and the tiered system of employment that violates the principle of equal pay for equal work. Many of these problems continue today.   

The Yanshan teachers’ case also exposes the difficult working conditions of teachers in China, who have been facing extremely long working hours and disproportionately low wages, especially in rural areas. Sometimes teachers reported teaching more than 40 lessons a week. The situation has worsened after regulations limited private tutoring in China, placing after-hours responsibilities on traditional teachers. 

Unfair employment policies underlie the age discrimination issue

The dispute of the Yanshan teachers centers around the employment classification of teachers in China. Teachers on the government payroll (编制教师) have a much better compensation package than teachers employed on a contract basis (无编制教师). The state teachers - whether working at public or private institutions - have greater job security and more benefits, including wage increases with the length of service and pension and medical insurance after retirement. The contract teachers, on the other hand, are not eligible for salary increases, nor do they have fixed social security and other benefits. 

The distinction between state teachers and contract teachers depends entirely on the manner in which they were hired - under an annual quota set by the state, or if the school needs additional teachers and pays the salaries themselves - and has little to do with their education level or hukou (residency) status, although those factors are prevalent in teacher employment patterns. 

From time to time, the Ministry of Education issues policies that limit the proportion of contract teachers employed by schools, so they are often at risk of being let go at any time. Not surprisingly, the turnover rate of contract teachers is very high, and most teachers hope to be officially appointed as state teachers during their careers.

To narrow the gap between urban and rural education levels and to attract young people to teach in rural areas, China launched the "Special Post Program" in 2006. By recruiting graduates to teach in the central and western regions, the program is designed to subsidise rural teachers and make education levels more equal between rural and urban areas. As long as they are college graduates, participants of this program do not need to have graduated from a qualified major to become teachers. However, the special post program has an age limit, requiring that applicants are under 30 years old (or under 35 in some areas). 

Yanshan teachers barred from better pay and benefits

The teachers speaking out against the age policy are currently employed as rural contract teachers by Yanshan county. They hoped to apply to the special post program to be eligible to enjoy the same treatment as state teachers while in the program and be formally employed as state teachers three years after passing an examination at the end of the program. However, the teachers were ineligible for the program because of the age limit. 

Therefore, the Yanshan teachers have little hope of ever getting on the state teacher track after years of serving as contract teachers. The teachers argue that this age restriction means that teachers who were originally employed in rural areas or counties have less opportunity to be promoted through the programs. This will eventually cause the outflow of more teachers and affect the overall quality of education, undermining the program. 

Realising they lost the chance to receive the same benefits as state teachers simply because of the age requirement, the Yanshan teachers demanded the Cangzhou city government and China’s Education Bureau amend the discriminatory policy or provide other opportunities for contract teachers to become - or simply have the same benefits as - state teachers. They argued that changing the policy would provide opportunities for rural teachers to become state teachers and that the principle of equal pay for equal work for contract teachers and state teachers, who perform the same jobs, should be upheld.

Photograph: jianbing Lee /

Union: “We cannot change the policy of the Education Bureau”

After learning of the Yanshan teachers’ appeal on our Calls-for-Help Map, China Labour Bulletin first called the Cangzhou Federation of Trade Unions to ask if the municipal union could represent these teachers defending their own rights. 

The Cangzhou trade union official replied that the union had not received any information from the teachers and also argued that this is an issue for the Education Bureau to deal with. 

"As a trade union, we do not have the authority, and this issue does not fall within the jurisdiction of our trade union," the union official told CLB. The Cangzhou union official provided the contact number of the lower level union, the Yanshan County Federation of Trade Unions, and recommended that we contact them instead.

Meanwhile, we also tried to reach the sectoral trade union in Cangzhou - the Union of Education, Culture, Sports, Health and Sports - which should have the responsibility of representing teachers, but nobody answered the phone even after many attempts.

After referral by the municipal trade union, CLB contacted the Yanshan County Federation of Trade Unions, but the Yanshan union had not heard of the teachers’ appeal either. CLB pointed out that the requirement for special post teachers to be younger than 30 years is a violation of the anti-discrimination sections of China’s Labour Law and Employment Promotion Law: 

Article 25. The people's governments at all levels shall create an environment for fair employment, eliminate employment discrimination and formulate policies and take measures to support and aid the people face difficulty getting a job.

Article 26. When an employer recruits employees, or when a job intermediary agency engages in job intermediary activities, it shall provide workers with equal employment opportunities and fair employment conditions and shall not have any employment discrimination.  

Employment Promotion Law 

CLB asked if the Yanshan union could report such a violation to the Education Bureau and ask for an amendment. Surprisingly, the Yanshan union officer replied, “Do you know there is an age limit for the civil service entrance examination as well? Applicants must be under 35 years old.” 

The union officer’s remark exposed the normalisation of such an age limitation, even one in a government employment policy. However, we pointed out that age restrictions for employment opportunities, whether for the civil service exam or for special post teachers, both violate the law. Furthermore, the civil service age limitation is a negative example of the government taking the lead in employment discrimination. Trade unions should not echo such behaviour and should instead request the government to correct its policies in the interest of workers.

The union official’s comment is also striking, considering that the 1993 Teachers Law requires that state teachers’ pay and benefits are at or above the salary level of those at a comparable level in the civil service. Further, it was not until several policy documents were issued in 2018 that this salary requirement of the law was even enforced, so until very recently state teachers’ pay lagged significantly behind that of the civil service. These salary guarantees do not apply to contract teachers. 

The Yanshan union officer also showed he was aware of the different benefits of state versus contract teachers in his county, yet he upheld the disparate treatment. “Can an undergraduate degree be the same as a college graduate degree?” he asked, referring not to technical job qualifications but to the de facto situation that state teachers often have a higher level of education. 

“There is no way to change their [different] treatment,” he concluded. CLB found this comment to reflect that the union does not understand the concept of equal pay for equal work, or the union’s role in advocating for more fair policies for workers. 

Ultimately, the Yanshan union official insisted that the union could not intervene in the teachers’ case or respond to their demands. Even when CLB mentioned that teachers may collectively go to Beijing to petition if no one dealt with their issues, the union official replied with indifference: "Just let them go to petition, then."

Unions should proactively represent teachers’ interests 

When directly confronted with the discriminatory recruitment policy of the special post program and the vastly different treatment of teachers in his county, the Yanshan trade union did not acknowledge that the union’s purpose is to represent teachers’ interests. It also did not object to the improper policy. Moreover, the union refused to intervene in an ongoing labour rights situation brewing among a large number of teachers in its jurisdiction. 

If the union continues its failure to protect workers’ rights after infringement and its inability to prevent such violations from happening in the first place, the trade union will only push teachers further away. This is contrary to its fundamental mission. 

In addition, the trade union can be an important stakeholder in policy making. Grassroots teachers need representation so as to improve their working conditions and teaching benefits. CLB suggested that the Cangzhou municipal union and the Yanshan county union should request correction of discriminatory policies in all levels of recruitment, should promote equal pay for equal work and should take steps to improve the benefits of all categories of teachers. 


This is a condensed version of an original Chinese-language story published on 17 December 2021.

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