Working women in China – second class workers [Note 1]

06 March 2004

According to statistics from the All China Women’s Federation, in 1949 there were only 600,000 women employees in China – an estimated 7.5 percent of the total labour force. [This figure does not presumably reflect the numbers of women working in family farms or those engaged in undocumented work such as illegal contract work or prostitution). [NOTE 2] By 1978, female employees had reached 31.28 million, making a total of 32.9 per cent of the total workforce. According to ACWF the number of working women in China is now 330 million, accounting for 46.7 percent of the total working population in the country. [NOTE 3]

Despite the increase in the numbers of recognised women workers, women are - and were - employed mainly in the primary or lower status industries such as manufacturing. Women account for a very low percentage of managerial staff and staff employed in professional sectors. Despite great advances since 1949, the majority of female workers are still seen as expendable employees, likely to leave after only a few years service or if they are older, they are seen as expensive, and unfavourable candidates for workplace training or promotion, perpetuating their status as second class workers.

Layoffs and impact of economic reforms

There has been, without doubt, major advances for women in China, both in terms of their economic status and in terms of their position in society. This short report cannot address or acknowledge all the positive improvements for working women since 1949 and instead concentrates on recent challenges for women workers.

There have been two very distinct and important effects of the rapid economic reformation of Chinas economy for Chinese women workers. Like many aspects of this headlong race towards ‘free-enterprise’, there are new opportunities for many, but at the same time major challenges. The increased employment opportunities have given many women, especially poor rural migrant women, an opportunity to enter the workforce by taking work in the new private enterprises that have sprung up throughout China, but in particular in the south and eastern coastal regions. This has meant that millions of women from poor farming communities have left their homes in search of work in cities. However, many of these “dagongmei” work without contracts, in private enterprises that flout Chinese labour legislation and legislation protecting women at work. Abysmal working conditions and the denial of the right to freedom of association means that for many women, their increased ability to enter the workforce has not necessarily led to an improvement in their daily lives. In fact, in recent years, conditions for some have deteriorated sharply, despite overall increases in living standards.

The second major impact has been the effect of the reforms on the old state owned enterprises (SOEs) which has led to the bankruptcy and /or restructuring of large SOEs into smaller privately owned companies. For many women employed in the state sector, especially older women already in employment, the reforms have seen the decimation of their state-owned enterprises and many have been the first victims in restructuring.

The Ministry of Labour reported that in 1997, while women accounted for only 39 percent of China's work force they made up nearly 61 percent of its laid-off workers. The majority of SOEs will first laid-off the female workforce and only then the male workers. Given that working at SOEs have in the past also given employees access to a wide range of benefits, means that laid-off women often lose, in addition to their job, medical care, child care, pension benefits and funeral costs. [NOTE 4]

In an interview in the New York Times, one female laid off worker attending an unemployment centre in Tianjin, northern China stated, “At our factory everyone who was laid off was a women. Look around you, everyone here is female, Now what can we do? We’re not young enough. We don’t have experience.” [NOTE 5]

In addition to the widely held traditional belief that female employees are more expensive and temporary and hence expendable, there are also legislative factors that encourage female unemployment and layoffs. The “Regulations on the Arrangement of Redundant Staff in State Owned Enterprises” [NOTE 6] allow enterprises to give employees’ resignation or early retirement or to terminate contracts during restructuring. Women are allowed to take a two year leave period during pregnancy or breast feeding. In many case, the enterprises “offer” or persuade female employees to take early retirement in the event of pregnancy. In some cases, enterprises have developed formal “return home” policies to encourage pregnant women or nursing mothers to leave work and stay at home in return for a percentage of their salary. This becomes in effect an easy way of ridding the enterprise of its female workers over a certain age or those who become – through childbirth – legally entitled to certain benefits.

In addition, the “Temporary Regulations on the Employment and Examination of Workers” state that “jobs suitable for women should be given to young women if possible”, further decreasing the employment opportunities for older women”. [NOTE 7] Some provinces have recognised the problem of unfair redundancy and have included in their local legislation regulations requiring enterprises not to discriminate during restructuring, as well asking them to provide support for “those women who are no longer fit for new positions with the enterprise”. [NOTE 8] Many SOEs however continue to unfairly lay-off female workers, despite these provisions.

Long term unemployment

Official figures also show that some 75 percent of laid-off women were still unemployed after one year, compared with the 50 percent of men still unemployed after one year. [NOTE 9]

The root cause of the lack of re-employment opportunities for the millions of laid-off women is sexual discrimination during hiring. The failure of women from SOEs or older women to gain re-employment stems from the fact that many of those laid-off tend to be those of an age where most have children and are also the major home workers, with the burden of childrearing and care for the elderly. As older women are perceived to be more expensive because of the legislation outlining various benefits and compulsory rest periods for women, most private enterprises prefer hiring very young female workers, especially those younger than 18, because they are less likely to get pregnant than older women.

After 1979, enterprises and factories began to rid themselves of the bonuses and material benefits that were universal in the pre-reform era and instead instituted a market based system of more money for more work – driving down costs and increasing working hours. In general this favours male workers who are freer to work more overtime [because women take the responsibility for childcare and housework] and, given many of the restrictions in Chinese law on the types of work not acceptable for women, are much more attractive as employees than women.

An additional cause is that in the economically depressed areas such as provinces with a large concentration of heavy industry and failing SOEs, there are often few jobs remaining unless one travels to other cities or provinces. For many laid off older men there are opportunities for work related migration or seasonal migration, women however are required to stay at home and take care of the family.

A further problem that has emerged since the 1980’s is the growth of a swing away from the revolutionary equality of the sexes espoused after 1949 and towards a more ‘traditional’ view of women as the weaker sex. Increasingly in areas of high unemployment, it is seen as preferable that women should allow their men folk to obtain what remaining employment there is.

According to a recent survey carried out by the Huakun Female Survey Centre, over 80 percent of those interviewed felt that middle-aged women carry the heaviest burden and are under more pressures than middle-aged men, due to the continuing demand that they not only work, but also take care the home, the children and elderly parents. [NOTE 10]In short laid-off women workers remain as second class workers, too old to be re-trained and too young to have finished with the burden of child or parent care.

Lower paid jobs

Given the lack of equal opportunities for education and the favouring of male employees most women in China are forced to take up lower paid and low status jobs. In a survey of new graduates, it was reported in Guangzhou that many applicants found that graduate level jobs specified, “only males” or “males preferred” in their recruitment literature. This contrasts clearly with the recruitment advertising for the low paid and unskilled jobs in Guangzhou’s factories and the surrounding area where women – young, nimble fingered and expendable – are preferred. [NOTE 11]

As in many other counties the various factors that ensure that women are less educated than men with a lower social status than men, mean that they are generally as only temporary participants in the workplace. This helps to ensure that female workers remain poorly trained, with few marketable skills, thus keeping the vast majority of women workers in China in jobs with low wages, poor job security and relatively few chances of promotion or longevity of employment. This itself helps perpetuate the cycle of discrimination, as women will then try to change jobs in order to gain more money or, denied promotion, to increase their chances of a better job.

According to figures quoted by the ACWF, some 95 percent of new employment opportunities are offered by privately owned enterprises. Unlike the SOEs, these enterprises for the most part (but not by all means all of them) do not provide the full benefits for women that they are obliged to give under Chinese law. Indeed the low level of compliance with Chinese labour laws relating to benefits, pensions, wages and working hours are often the very cause of their growth. For their role in the success of private enterprise in China, women workers are found working in servitude, denied the basic provisions of the labour law such as a maximum working week, a minimum wage, some guarantees of employment after pregnancy and maternity benefits.

Increasingly the move away from the post liberation socialist campaigns promoting the equality of ability of women has meant that some employment sectors are seen as women’s work. This includes repetitive unskilled work in manufacturing, domestic work, cleaning, service industries (such as waitressing) and some more ‘female’ occupations such as librarianship or primary school teaching. The myth that women are best suited to certain types of work and not, for example, management, is perpetuated by both the All China Women’s Federation and by the All China Federation of Trade Unions in their training courses for unemployed women and some state operated migration schemes.

The report given below is an illuminating example of this practice that is increasing popular notions of a ‘natural’ gender divide in working abilities and interests:

Recently, 100 outstanding migrant women workers who left the city to engage in "home management" work [domestic workers] were conferred the title of “March 8th Red Flag Workers” by officials from the Liao City Women's Federation (LWF). At the award ceremony, local party and government officials personally delivered a large red flower to the women being commended along with a certificate of honour.

Since 2000, each level of LWF has made systematic efforts to promote female employment by exporting labour [to other regions of China]. The women represent a positive resource that needs to be developed in an orderly manner in order to address the issue of excess female labour.

To date, there have been clear benefits. The LWF estimates an "exported" female workforce of more than 23,000 people that has generated a combined income of nearly 100 million Yuan. In fact Liao’s maids have become a bright spot of economic development that has spread beyond Liao to the whole of Shandong province. Liao maids and domestic workers can be found in every big city and enjoy an excellent reputation. The Liao city government has allocated special funds to shoot television productions such as "Liao Home Managers in Beijing" and "Liao Women Migrants of Shanghai" to publicize the reputation of women from Liao. Another 280 young women are due to leave Liao in search of work immediately after Spring Festival. They will look for jobs as maids and other related sectors. [NOTE 12]

Legislation – a blunt and double edged sword?

As with many areas of the law in China there is a huge and sometimes widening gap between the theory and the implementation of the law. China does possess comprehensive laws and regulations that are designed to protect women’s health and certain rights at work. Chinese labour laws and specific laws such as the “Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women” provide restrictions for the type and duration of work women can undertake during menstruation, pregnancy, and breastfeeding. Certain types of work are forbidden to women during these periods and some work is restricted at all times, including for example work at high altitudes or extreme temperatures. Pregnant women are also forbidden to work in places with high concentrations of chemicals that can affect the female reproduction system. Ironically enough many of the young female migrant workers are employed in private enterprises that flout health and safety regulations to such as degree that mass benzene poising is found predominately in the almost exclusive female workforce of factories producing goods such as shoes.

According to the Regulations on the Types of World Unsuitable to Women Workers, the areas forbidden to all female workers include:

Any work at the mine or down the pit;

Some work in the realm of forestry;

Any work which requires physical labour with Grade IV intensity as stipulated in the Classification of the Intensity of Physical Labour;

Assembling and dismantling of scaffolding;

Overhead electrical work;

Any work requiring the labourer to bear a heavy burden continuously (or more than six times per hour) with a heavy burden weighing more than 20 kilos.

Women are forbidden during menstruation to work in a low temperature setting, any work with a Grade III intensity and all work at altitudes. During pregnancy and breastfeeding the list includes work with specified chemicals, radioactive materials, earth or stone work, any work involving vibrations, any work involving frequent bending or squatting and any work at high altitudes. Pregnant women (over seven months) must not work night shifts or extended hours. [NOTE 13]

In addition, national regulations state that employers must not terminate the contract of a pregnant or breast feeding worker, employers must provide social insurance during childbirth, time off for pre-natal check ups, rest breaks for breastfeeding twice a day (more if there are more babies) – the time needed for this including travel time shall be counted as work time -; employers (individually or together) must provide a clinic, a lounge for pregnant women, a nursery, a kindergarten and “must properly solve the problems of women workers concerning physiological hygiene, breastfeeding and baby nursing.[NOTE 14]

However, while much of the legislation is comprehensive, there are often little details given in how to implement the requirements (as opposed to the clauses on forbidden work which are relatively clear) and what the various legal requirements actually are. This adds to the large scale avoidance of compliance by employees.

For some women, predominately migrant women in smaller privately-owned enterprises, these benefits are meaningless. In many cases they, like their male colleagues, do not possess written work contracts and will not receive basic benefits, let alone those specifically provided for women. Increasingly CLB is monitoring worker demonstrations and protests concerning the non-payment or denial of basic benefits guaranteed by law or through factory contracts. In the state sector, many SOEs are claiming financial inability to pay for the pensions, medical care and other social security items that were promised to their workers – laid-off or not. Bankruptcy and lack of funds are certainly one of the causes of the current crisis of non-payment of benefits (and indeed wages themselves), however this financial instability itself is often caused by massive enterprise corruption.

For women working in enterprises where the regulations are more relevant, they may in fact find that the relevant provisions relating to their gender specific needs is actually playing a part in the suppression of progress towards equality of employment and opportunity for women, in part because of the practical considerations for an enterprise employing women with children or of a childbearing age, but also at a more fundamental level.

Despite the huge sectors of China’s economy where women are denied their statutory rights and benefits, as in many other countries, there has been increasing debate on the negative effects of protectionist legislation that emphasises women’s physical and biological differences with men. In China some of this concern focuses on the official retirement ages for women and men, while much of the debate concerns the stress put on the biological differences by the Chinese laws.

According to a comprehensive study on the impact of China’s labour laws on women [NOTE 15] the various laws promulgated in the 1990’s to protect women and to promote equality, focus primarily on the biological differences between the sexes and do not emphasise the positive promotion of women’s equality of employment, of opportunity, of ability and of pay. By emphasising these biological differences, the law places an added burden on employers who employ women which results in women finding that the very laws designed to protect them actually “subjects them to discrimination and disadvantages them in the labour market”, helping to ensure their subordination to male workers.

“These regulations, structured around a women’s reproductive cycle, limit the hours women may work and regulate the benefits a woman workers receives during menstruation, pregnancy, post pregnancy and menopause. In effect, these regulations promote the notion that a woman’s primary responsibility is to give birth, care for young children, and attend to their reproductive capacities. These intrusive regulations are viewed as necessary for the welfare of the family’s community, concerns for family and community, however, are not apparent in legislation covering male employees. By focusing on biological differences in a way that excludes male workers from responsibility for neo-natal and post-natal visits and child care, Chinese labour law thrusts child bearing and child rearing responsibility entirely upon women.” [NOTE 16]

Another area of concern to many within China is the current retirement age for women, set at 50 as opposed to 55 for men. [Female government officials can retire at 55 while their male counterparts retire at 60.] According to many writers inside China, the differing retirement ages were to protect women who, after liberation in 1949, were burdened with heavy physical labour at home and at work and usually had two or more children to look after as well as taking responsibility for the care of elderly parents. While for the majority of Chinese women these “double burdens” of work and child/parent care remain, there is less objective need for women to retire at an earlier age. This is especially true when one looks at the higher life expectancy of women in China where in some wealthier places, women die some ten years later than men. [NOTE 17]

The early retirement age means that retired women receive a much lower pension than male retirees, further reducing their financial status. It is also an added factor for an enterprise to lay off women first. In failing SOEs, women workers are forced into early retirement in their mid thirties to forties, rather than being technically “laid-off” which will further reduce any pension benefits they may be entitled to. Prior to the economic reforms many SOEs did provide a relatively lower level of discrimination against women, now however women cadres [or higher level workers] find that during restructuring they are first downgraded to worker status (which immediately lowers the retirement age from 55 to 50) and then made to take early retirement. One Chinese newspaper has stated that the new retirement age for women is in reality forty five and in some cases 35. [NOTE 18]

In the words of Tan Lin, director of the Institute of Women Studies under the All-China Women's Federation said: "The conditions for retirement should be judged by abilities and health conditions, not by gender." Moves towards changing the age and developing a flexible retirement age allowing for the needs of the various types of female workers have been mooted by female officials and members of the ACWF and it is believed that the Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women will be revised in the near future to address their concerns. [NOTE 19]

These arguments should not be taken to argue that laws protecting the specific rights of working women, including during pregnancy should not be promoted, supported or enforced. However, because the regulations are not strictly enforced in either the letter or the spirit of the law and because of the lack of state social security support for employees and their workplaces, provisions guaranteeing such benefits mean that many employers simply do not want to hire women and use the regulations as an excuse to discriminate against women, or they simply hire younger women and go on to disregard the provisions. This is quite clearly evident in the private industries employing young, vulnerable migrant labourers who have just emerged from the rural areas and who are not likely to marry while they attempt to earn enough money to send home as remittances.

The cost of Motherhood

In previous years the prime responsibility for providing maternity benefits, post natal benefits and other benefits (including child care) for women were borne by the “danwei” or work unit, however in recent years after the government reduced or ended subsidies to many SOEs, this burden has been especially onerous for the failing enterprises. In many documented cases, women are sacked once they fall pregnant. This is especially true in the private sector and for the majority of young migrant women. Indeed the Guangzhou Evening News published a study of new employees who were reporting that they had to sign contracts stating that they would not have a child in the next five years or that the company has the right to end any contract if the employee was found pregnant. [NOTE 20]

For many women, becoming pregnant is the end of their working life at a particular factory. According to Zhang Zheng, an official from the Xicheng labour dispute Arbitration Centre in Beijing, the laws regarding non-termination of work contracts for pregnant and nursing mothers are simply not being enforced. This small centre alone received some 80 cases involving violations of these rights in 2002 and the number is rising. [NOTE 21] Zhang Zheng is one of the many officials calling for a review and revision of the existing provisions of the Law on Protection of the Rights and Interests of Women and related legislation to reflect the changing realities of China in the 2000’s.

A recent survey quoted by Xinhua and conducted by the Beijing municipal labour authorities, shows that some 10 percent of employers do not respect the labour law provisions relating to women when signing work contracts. The survey also shows that women workers on maternity leave are paid less than is required. In addition, despite official requirements that SOEs must cover the cost of childbirth, many enterprises fail to do this. [NOTE 22] Li Lihua, an official with the ACWF reported that letters from women asking for help with labour rights protection accounted for 17 percent of the complaint letters received - on a par with letters received about family and marriage problems.

Although there are distinct signs that the government is serious about installing a state wide / province wide social security system which would include such benefits, many women employed in the state sector still receive – at least on paper - the benefits from their own enterprise and not from the state. Until the state can take on more of a role in providing these benefits, industries or enterprises with a high proportion of female workers may be forced to choose between the twin devils of non-payment of such benefits to their female employees or the laying off of female employees in favour of men.

In places where experimental or developing systems are emerging there has been little enthusiasm for such schemes by employers. In a recent study undertaken in Shaanxi Province, only two out of 126 private enterprises surveyed have joined the local maternity and related benefits insurance program. Further compounding the lack of enforcement of Chinese labour law provisions on maternity and the discrimination against migrants, the scheme covers only local resident women and not the majority of the workforce – female migrants. [NOTE 23]

Women and equal pay

In view of the fact that women in China tend to work in lower paid and lower status jobs, it is difficult to assess how widely the principle “equal pay for equal work” is enforced. In a report from March 2003, it was estimated that almost 20 percent of women earn wages less than 500 Yuan a month compared to just over 11 percent of men. Of those people in the highest wage bracket (5,000 Yuan) women make up just 14 percent. [NOTE 24]

In general, while statistics giving direct comparisons in workplaces are unavailable, it remains true that because state employed women tend to work shorter hours with their additional household duties, they work in lower grade posts, are less likely to be promoted and increase their wages, and retire earlier, in practice most women earn less than men and receive less pension benefits, if at all eligible.


As in many countries, for a variety of historical and societal reasons, trade union leadership is dominated by male trade unionists. However, perhaps because the All China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is in effect another branch of the government hierarchy, there is a relatively high proportion of female trade union leaders. The ACFTU states that some 40% of women are unionised - although this statistic is misleading given the fact that it does not include the millions of migrant workers (only recently entitled to join the ACFTU) and the many enterprises where branches of the ACFTU exist in name only.

The ACFTU also states that there were 1,954 women chairs or vice-chairs of trade unions and some 85,000 full time female trade union officials. The ACFTU established a Women Workers Commission in 1991 and by 1996, according to the ACFTU; all provincial federations of trade unions 90% of all “grass roots” unions had similar commissions. [NOTE 25]

The ACFTU has itself also researched the issue of non provision of benefits to women workers and in 1999 reported that “great problems still existed in all industrial sectors and units that are related to the provision of regular physical check-ups for female workers and the establishment of clinics and facilities for pregnant women. These problems were more severe in non-public owned factories”. [NOTE 26] In addition the ACFTU stated “In reality, sexual discrimination is still common in the workplace, the system on child-bearing insurance incomplete and the re-employment policy not fully implemented in some regions”.

The women’s commissions are designed to reflect the opinion of women workers and to participate in formulating legislation protecting women. They have also, more recently, been involved in training for unemployed female workers. However, according to several interviews with female workers and indeed trade union officials, there is a an overlap with the All China Women’s Federation in the provision of support and union services in the workplace, partly due to the notion that female workers are not an integral part of the workforce, and their ‘special needs’ are primarily those related to child bearing (and not issues such as career advancement or equal pay). In many cases, the ACFTU gives responsibility for overseeing provisions for women to the ACWF as part of their ‘women’s work’ while the local ACWF state that this is the responsibility of the ACFTU as it concerns ‘workers’. Women can be caught between the two bureaucracies and find little support other than some material help with children or social activities.

The ACFTU appears to also be perpetuating the gender divide in employment with its re-training courses, which focus on finding work “in areas which women are suitable for, for example, accounting and services”. [NOTE 27]

For women workers however, as for their male counterparts, the ACFTU is generally a distant organisation with little or no relevance to their working lives and one that provides little support in disputes. In CLB interviews investigating labour disputes or industrial accidents, many workers remain unaware that they even have a union, let alone one that they can turn to for assistance.


Since 1949 there have been great strides made in the education of women, increasing dramatically the numbers of girls in school and the educational opportunities for them. In 1990 a study of women over 60 years of age in the PRC found that some 85 percent had not attended school. [NOTE 28] However despite great advances generally in education, since the 1980s and especially in the last decade or so, basic schooling for many poor and rural boys and girls has actually decreased in both quality and availability. This is especially true in poorer rural provinces and for the children of migrant families in cities where they are effectively denied proper schooling.

[For more details on education in China and the link between education and child labour please see Education in China: A short introduction and Child Labour in China: Causes and solutions

Reforms within the education system and the privatization of the economy have led to a dramatic increase in school fees. Schools may now charge fees for tuition, for books, for school clothing and the families must also pay transport costs and provide meals for the children. China’s Compulsory Education Law came into effect in 1995; article 18 states that local governments are obliged to ensure that all children attend school for at least nine years. However, the law also states that local governments are at least partly responsible for education funding and this has led to at least a 10-fold increase in school fees between 1991 and 1997.

The numbers of children receiving adequate education are dropping with the exclusion of an every growing number of them. Drop out rates also appear to be on the increase and there has been a corresponding rise in child labour. This lack of decent education corresponds to the increasing number of child workers. According to Chinese law, the state must provide compulsory nine year basic education. This is, for many Chinese the only form of education they receive, especially in rural areas. However, according to statistics from the China Education and Research Network, the number of primary schools has decreased from 832,309 in 1985 to 609,626 in 1998. The new enrolment of both primary school and second level school has also decreased.

The education of girls lags far behind that of boys. The rate of girls entering school is lower than boys and drop out rates for girls are far higher than for boys. According to official statistics, female children account for 83 percent of the students who discontinue schooling [during the compulsory 9 year schooling period] each year. [NOTE 29] For many poor families when faced with increasing difficulties in paying school fees, taking the female child out of school remains an easier and more acceptable course of action than taking a boy child out of school. Among families interviewed by local and provincial authorities, many cite poverty as the main cause of taking their children out of school however, 37.5 percent of female children ere removed by their families for reasons of poverty while only 26.5 percent of males. [NOTE 30]
The rate of female illiteracy is also higher than the rate for males. According to one official source in a single sample survey of over 15 year olds, male illiterates accounted for only 29 percent while women made up 71 percent. [NOTE 31]

The special problem of ethnic women should also be noted here. It has been recognised by the Chinese authorities that, despite some advancement, education for China’s ethnic minorities still lags far behind that of Han children and this gap rises for female ethnic children who have the least access to education. Ethnic minorities in general constitute some 64 percent of the total number of illiterate people in China. There are also reports which reveal large numbers of children excluded from school in some of the ethnic autonomous regions in China. Female ethic children have far higher rates of drop out and non attendance than their male counterparts. The problem is exacerbated by the lack of native language schooling available for many of the children – a problem noted especially for Uighur and Tibetan speaking children.

Later in life, educational opportunities at a secondary and tertiary level are also unequally offered to women, with many universities admitting to favouring male students over female students. Female university student’s account for only 36.4 per cent of the total university population. [NOTE 32] For academics, employment opportunities upon graduation are also biased towards male graduates, while the pressures of finding employment outside universities upon graduation are intense for female graduates, who are generally required to be both top students and attractive individuals, if they want to be employed over a male counterpart.

“The higher up the pyramid the fewer [the] women” according to Xie Heng. [NOTE 33] As in many countries around the world only a tiny fraction of women are employed in management and political leadership. In China, the enormous effort put into promoting women in the first decades after 1949 contrasts with the currently very low number of females in the highest levels of political decision making. In the 1990 the ratio of men to women state councillors is 8:1, the ratio of deputy chairs of the People’s Congress was 10:1 and the ratio of deputy chairs of the people’s political consultative conference is 25:1. Current figures remain similar. [NOTE 34]


For women to be able to compete equally with men in the workplace and to overcome the existing prejudices towards employment of women in higher status or well paid employment, the Chinese authorities must emphasis the provision of affordable education for all female children and should redress the imbalance between ethnic minority and Han children in the provision of suitable education.

The authorities should ensure that there is a more even distribution of household work within families. This inevitably involves the provision of proper social security benefits; maternity benefits, pensions and child care costs by the state and an enforcement of regulations asking employees to provide or join insurance schemes. Such provisions will reduce the paradigm of women of a childbearing age being perceived as an expensive luxury in the workforce.

The Chinese authorities should ensure that relevant legislation preventing terminations of contracts for pregnancy; detailing health and safety requirements and other issues are fully enforced by local authorities and by the enterprise themselves. In addition, many of the laudable provisions (such as on health and safety, maternity benefits etc) in the various laws must also be fleshed out with detailed recommendations, ordinances and punishments. This must be followed up with a reinforced system of enforcement and investigation, allowing for suitable financial punishments for those enterprises flouting the regulations.

At the same time, the laws protecting women’s interests should be reviewed to address the concerns that the laws in fact are hindering the advancement of women. Relevant laws, which promote equality and anti-discrimination against women, should be drawn up as opposed to laws enhancing the biological differences of women. There should also be provisions promoting gender-neutral support for careers.

Existing procedures for complaints, arbitration and legal aid for women in the event of a labour dispute or the denial of statutory rights should be strengthened and simplified. Proper support should be given to women seeking redress. Proper compensation, at suitable levels, for illness, accidents and other issues should be provided to all working women.

For the long term advancement of Chinese women workers, the ACFTU, the ACWF, the Ministry of Labour and other groups should emphasis the positive contribution of women in the workforce and tackle at the root such fundamental issues such as the widespread discrimination in hiring, firing, promotion and pay against women.


[NOTE 1] This short report looks primarily at non migrant women working in the state sector and in private urban enterprises. Migrant workers and rural workers are addressed in separate articles.

[NOTE 2] Employment Diversity and Women’s Interests, Li Quifang, Member of secretariat of the ACWF and director of Women’s Studies Institute Of China.

[NOTE 3] People’s Daily 8 October 2000

[NOTE 4] Women in China: Free Market Outcasts, revolutionary Worker #999, March 21, 1999

[NOTE 5] New York Times, “In China, 35+ and female = unemployable”, 13 October 1998

[NOTE 6] State Council of the PRC: Regulations on the Arrangement of Redundant Staff in State Owned enterprises, 1993

[NOTE7] “Temporary Regulations on the Employment and Examination of Workers” (Ministry of personnel and labour 1993. See Yale law and feminism ibid

[NOTE 8] See various provincial regulations on Implementation of restructuring including those of Anhui, Beijing, Guangxi, Fujian and others.

[NOTE 9] Women in China: Free Market Outcasts, revolutionary Worker #999, March 21, 1999

[NOTE 10] People’s Daily 8 March 2003

[NOTE 11] Guangzhou Evening News 11 March 2003

[NOTE 12] Women of China, 9 February 2003

[NOTE 13] The laws governing types of work unsuitable for women include; Regulations on the Types of Work Unsuitable to Women Workers, Ministry of Labour 18 January 1990; The Classification of the Intensity of Physical Labour; Classification of the Altitude of Overhead Operation; The Classification of Operations with Toxicity and Provisions of Labour Safety and Health for Women Workers.

[NOTE 14] See the relevant provisions of the Provisions of Labour Safety and Health for Women Works (1988) and the Labour Law of the PRC (revised 1995)

[NOTE 15] When gender differences become a trap: The impact of Chinas labour laws on women, Charles j.Ogletree and Rangita de Silva de Alwius, Yale Journal of law and feminism, 2002

[NOTE 16] ibid.

[NOTE 17] Chinese Women want the same retiring age as men, Embassy of the PRC in the USA, 23 January 2003

[NOTE 18] China Workers Journal June 2003

[NOTE 19] Honouring women's choice, China Daily, 1 September 2003

[NOTE 20] Guangzhou Evening News 11 March 2003

[NOTE 21] Xinhua 24 August 2003

[NOTE 22] Xinhua 24 August 2003

[NOTE 23] Shaanxi Workers’ News 5 November 2003

[NOTE 24] China Women, 31 March 2003

[NOTE 25] Taken from a paper by Xu Ke, presented at a Bangkok Conference (2000) coordinated by the Group Women in Politics and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. See


[NOTE 27] ibid

[NOTE 28] The Theory and Practice of protection of women’s rights and interests in contemporary China – an investigation and study on the enforcement of UN Convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in China, Centre for Women’s law Studies and Legal Services of Peking University (Worker press, Beijing 2001)

[NOTE 29] ibid

[NOTE 30] ibid, p63

[NOTE 31] ibid, p55

[NOTE 32] ACWF quoted in People’s Daily 8 October 2000

[NOTE 33] Taken from a paper by Xu Ke, presented at a Bangkok Conference (2000) coordinated by the Group Women in Politics and Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. See

[NOTE 34] ibid

8 March 2004

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