Hong Kong (AsiaNews) On World Women's Day today the big news is that there will be a woman astronaut on the next trip into outer space, as announced yesterday by Gu Xiulian, president of All China Women Federation (ACWF).
Despite the news, discrimination of women at the workplace is still very common and is getting worse in rural areas. The China Labour Bulletin (of Chinese dissident Han Dongfang) yesterday published documents and figures that prove the Chinese economic boom is hampering the emancipation of women even more.
According to the ACWF, since 1949 the number of women in the Chinese workforce has increased, from 600,000 to 31.28 million in 1978 (from 7.5% to 32.9%).
Currently female workers total 330 million, 46.7% of the Chinese working population. However there is great disparity in terms of treatment at work when compared to men. Women in particular are relegated to less qualified jobs, lower positions and tasks which give little financial and moral satisfaction.
Discrimination at work has as its principle cause in the low level of education which most young girls have throughout the country: instead of going to school, they are given housework to do or must look after their brothers who receive proper educations instead. Since the economy has been privatized, school tuition has increased and families find themselves not being able to afford such fees.
Families prefer to send their sons to school rather than their daughters, who are considered a burden to be "exploited" by the father's family. According to official estimates, during the 9 years of mandatory education 83% of children who quit school are girls. In 2000 women's rate of literacy stood at 78% (versus 92% for men). Often young girls do not go to school as many are not registered at birth (due to control policies related to number of births per family) in order to leave room for male children in schools, who will take care of their parents when they are elderly.
In this way employment opportunities for women are limited to less qualified work sectors and those of hard physical labor (in manufacturing industries, hotels, restaurants and domestic jobs) or in environments which are considered "female work" (e.g. in libraries and primary schools). In recent years, the number of female agricultural workers has grown (from 61.6% in 2001 to 67% in 2003) as wives replace their husbands in the fields who go to cities in search of better work.
Work equality laws passed in the 1990s have made discrimination only worse in all sectors, underscoring above all the fact that women, who also must be mothers, are subject to greater levels of discrimination.
In most cases, women are fired or sent to early retirement after a only few years of service, as employers think about the possibility that they will get pregnant. In the past, women received maternity leave and government subsidies at state-run companies. Now, however, the government has reduced or eliminated such benefits.
In new private enterprise most women work without contracts and secure conditions. Often employers prefer women under the age of 18, as they will have children or get married much later in life.
Women have been hit the hardest by the failure of many state businesses, as they have been laid off or fired much at much higher rates than men. Retirement age for women 50. Yet many women are fired or laid off at 45, sometimes even at 35 years of age as they lose healthcare benefits for themselves and their children in addition to subsidies for family burials. Women employees of state-run companies are entitled up to 2 years maternity leave during periods of pregnancy and breastfeeding. Often companies try and bargain pregnant women to quit their jobs in exchange for a part of their salary.
Women's interest, protection and rights legislation forbids then them to perform certain jobs during their menstrual cycle, pregnancy or breastfeeding. Based on certain national laws, an employer mustn't fire or lay off women who are pregnant or breastfeeding and must provide health insurance for the birth of a child in addition to leave from work for pre-natal visits in addition to 2 hours off a day for breastfeeding, to go to the hospital or nursery. A survey performed by the Xinhua news agency revealed that women on maternity leave are paid less than what is due to them and many state companies do not cover childbirth expenses as is prescribed by law.
Unequal treatment between women and men is also seen in salary rates. In a report released last March 2003, 20% of women (versus 11% of men) were said to earn 500 yuan (around 60 euro) a month and form only 14% of the best paid work force, where they earn 5000 yuan (600 euro) a month.
The worst situation is that of female migrant workers, where a third of them emigrate to cities in search of more stable work. Yet due to their low levels of education and young age they are often ignorant of their rights and accept almost any working conditions, which have more intense schedules, low salaries as well as unstable and unsafe environments; 83% of them are under age 30 versus 55% of their male counterparts.
Many work in new industries in the River of Pearls region (Guangdong), where qualified labor is not in high demand. In some of these industries, the male-female ration is 1:9. In 2003 in Shenzhen women formed 70% of 5.5 million migrant workers. In the industrial area of Nanshan (Shenzhen) women were 80% of the migrant worker population and were less than 23 years old on average.
In these industries women often work in contact with toxic substance When they get ill they are fired and since no laws exist to protect migrant workers in cities, they often receive no compensation. If they try and report their case, they are ignored by authorities. Often when they return to their rural homes they get sick, without having the least idea they their disease was caused by their poor working conditions. (MR)