The Southern Weekend (Nanfang Zhoumo), a progressive magazine in China, is conducting a poll live on its website infzm.com, asking its readers whether they have been discrimination in job search and employment. Almost 10 thousand readers responded as of today and 84.47% of the respondents said that they have experienced employment discrimination in various forms. The most common discrimination is gender discrimination (25.36%), which is followed by discrimination based on age (20.19%), other reasons (16.39%), physical features (16.33%), health (12%), and marriage status (9.73%).
Although the result might not be surprising to anybody who has worked in China, the numbers are nevertheless quite appalling. China’s current Labor Law (1994) does have very general stipulation that ensures the equal employment for Chinese. It’s written that:
Laborers shall have the right to be employed on an equal basis, choose occupations, obtain remuneration for their labor, take rest, have holidays and leaves, obtain protection of occupational safety and health, receive training in vocational skills, enjoy social insurance and welfare, and submit applications for settlement of labor disputes, and other rights relating to labor as stipulated by law. (Section 3, Chapter I)
However, there is no specific anti-discrimination law in China that protects vulnerable population such as women, people with disabilities, the LGBT people, ethnic minorities, people above certain ages, or people from certain regions. Sometimes, the employers even use information about job seekers’ personal life, such as they’re divorced or married twice, against them. Like in many cases of other Chinese laws, the Labor Law is loosely enforced and thus many violations can go without sanction. Already in a powerless position especially when the job market hasn’t been growing proportionally as the labor force, job seeker rarely take action to contest employers’ oftentimes outright discrimination.
In a perpetually male-dominant society, one is hardly surprised that gender discrimination tops the list. “Women can hold up half of the sky!” My generation of Chinese (born in the late 70s and early 80s) grew up with this slogan. The reality is, however, there’s still a long way ahead of us before women in China can have equal employment opportunities with men. Female college graduates, for instance, will more likely end up in jobs with less potential for career development than their male counter parts.
“I’m looking for a job this year,” a reader shared her story. “[I] study hydraulic engineering, in a Master’s program, female. [I'm] running into walls every day. Nobody hires girls, based on discrimination. [I'm] so helpless and can’t find a satisfactory job. It looks that I’ll have to wait until my graduation next year to find a job.”
“I hear you,” a reader replied to her. “It’s extremely tough for female students in engineering [to get a job].”
Engineering is indeed often considered a “male profession.” However, it’s by no means the only profession that doesn’t welcome female workers. Gender discrimination is almost a norm on the job market cross-the-board. “[They only] hire male employees and never hire females [in] accounting,” wrote another reader from her experience.
“Now no matter [you study] engineering or liberal arts, female graduates don’t have the same opportunities as male graduates do in job seeking… Gender discrimination is very serious…” another reader commented.
Serious it is. Gender discrimination is so prevalent in the hiring process that the employers don’t even need to hide it. “I got an interview,” wrote a reader, “and then they told me that they didn’t hire female graduates.”
And it can be worse, if a female employee or job seeker has another disadvantage such as health or age.
“No matter how well you perform at your job, once [you have] health problems, [you're] ruthlessly kicked out. [It's] very devastating, and [you have] no protection whatsoever. And female employees make a lot less than male employees who do the same job. The age limit for female employees is extremely strict, no higher than 35. Sometimes only 28 or even under 25,” wrote a reader.
The age discrimination is not just in private sector. Legally speaking, the government itself has violated the Labor Law by limiting the age of those who can register for the Public Service Examination to under 35. The age limit puts rural graduates, especially, in a very disadvantaged position. A reader observed that “about the issue that rural students [generally] start school late, and they graduate at an age older than others, so when it comes to job seeking, applying for graduate school or military academy, they’re not discriminated but flat-out rejected, because their ages exceed the limit. What are they going to do?”
Employers also don’t hire women because of the prospect of their marriage, pregnancy and child raring. In fact, the Labor Law’s Chapter VII provides legal protection for women and juvenile workers, including protection during and after pregnancy as well as the child raring period. However, because of the lack of protection for women at hiring and the poor enforcement of the law, these protections actually became the reasons for the employers to be reluctant to hire women, no matter how qualified they are for the job.
“[When a female college graduate chooses to] get a job, some companies don’t even open their doors to anybody other than those who have a Master’s degree. [When she] chooses to go to grad school, [the employers] will look at her marriage status, and see if [she] will apply for maternity leave etc.,” a reader lamented.
Indeed, it is extremely hard for Chinese women to balance career and family because they have to work a lot harder than men to get to where they want to be, if they’re lucky. That’s part of the reason why there are an increasing number of single career women, shengnu, who have delayed marriage and child raring, indefinitely.
As China’s economy slows down, the job market can only get tougher. For those who are in an disadvantaged position, getting a job is even more challenging, let alone getting equal pay. However, in a society where people are not equally valued for their ability, achievement and work ethics and where the vulnerable and the disadvantaged are not provided with a basic safety net, economic growth alone isn’t enough to bring about “prosperity” or “harmony.” Those in power in China may well understand this, but just like many other issues in China, addressing the issue of employment discrimination is easier said than done.