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Wanted: a more equal opportunity

by Elisabeth Rosenthal

Every afternoon, in the small courtyard outside the Machang Street Re-employment Center in Tianjin, small groups of laid-off workers anxiously scan the day's help-wanted listings. There is a sad sameness about this regtag army of job hopefuls, each one dressed up, ready for an interview at any time: they are all women, all older than 35 and all unskilled.

"At our factory everyone who was laid off was a woman," said Sun Jingqi, 41, a former textile worker. "Look around you, every one here is a female," added Ms Sun, who had put on heels and makeup and a smart red sweater outfit for yet another fruitless trip to check the board. "Now what can we do? We're not young enough. We don't have experience."

As China struggles to convert to a market economy, closing and shrinking state-owned industries, women over 35 have borne the brunt of the pain: they are far more likely to be laid off and far less likely to find a new job than any other group in China.

These women are the worker ants who for decades populated factory floors in an array of state industries that have now shrunk or mechanised, from textile mills to chemical plants. They learned few skills despite years of work, and are mostly poorly educated, belonging to a generation that came of age during the Cultural Revolution, when most of the universities were shut down.

But they suffer, too, from outright discrimination and deeply held cultural biases about the limited abilities of women. Such biases have free play in the country where wanted ads often specify sex- not to mention height, age and body characteristics.

"If you are over 35, it's very hard to find work," said a sad looking 43-year-old woman at the re-employment center who would give only her last name, Yang. She said she has been laid off this year from the food processing plant and was preparing to go out on an interview for a part-time job cleaning windows for the equivalent of about HK$ 4.65 an hour.

"What can you do?" she asked. "You have young and old ones to look after. You're too old to learn new skills. You're not attractive anymore. Nobody wants us."

Not surprisingly, surveys have found higher-than-normal rates of depression, family violence and divorce in households where women have been laid off.

"Laid-off working women don't just need jobs, they also need emotional help," said Tan Lin, a population researcher at Nankai University. "They lose their chance to be employed, or re-employed. They sit at home lonely and feel depressed.

Last year women accounted for only 39 percent of China's work force but nearly 61 per cent of its laid-off workers, according to the Ministry of Labour. What is more, 75 per cent of laid-off women are still unemployed after one year, survey shows, compared with far less than 50 per cent of their male counterparts. The problem is so great the Chinese have coined a phrase, a kind of acronym meaning "laid-off working women", to describe this pitiable group.

The problem is particularly serious in places like Tianjin, a sprawling coastal manufacturing city of nine million people that is the center of the textile industry and so was stung by 320,000 layoffs in 1997 alone. Since jobs at state industries have historically come with a wide range of social benefits, laid-off workers often lose medical care, child care and funeral benefits as well as a job.

Local governments, and especially the government women's federation that exists in every Chinese city and town, have done much hand-wringing about the laid off women, organising courses to teach them new skills and operating re-employment bureaus. But their efforts have been only mildly successful, and have inevitably stressed a return to unskilled, low-wage labour.

Ten years ago, when the government still assigned jobs, the Communist Party made sure that women were well represented in companies and factories. But now working women can choose and be chosen, and market forces have not been so kind. Despite laws promoting equal opportunity for women, companies openly favour men over women for certain types of work.

"It's harder for women to find work," said a law school graduate in the midst of a job search, who gave only her surname, Wang, for fear of angering would-be employers. "When they are willing to hire a women, they want someone who is beautiful and capable, too."

She said many companies thought jobs were too strenuous for women if they involved travel or work in rural towns considered too rough.

Companies are even more reluctant to hire women over 35 since they tend to bear full responsibility for both child care and elderly care, researchers say. They add that these women possess few working skills, even compared with the men from their former factories, who had tended to hold the technical jobs.

Government officials say they expect most laid-off workers will find jobs in the service sector- which is growing as industries shrink. But they acknowledge that women over 35 have few prospects in a sector currently obsessed with youth and beauty.

Consider the ad placed by Jinzhiyuan Garment Company in Beijing Youth Daily: "Secretary, Beijing resident, female, under 30, above 1.65 meters, must have regular features." Or another by L'Oreal Cosmetics: "Promotion girl, female, under 28 years old, above 1.65 m tall, white skin, skinny, healthy."

Zhang Yongping, director of the Machang Street Labour Market, said: We have found it very difficult to get women over 40 re-employed. There are not so many jobs and, of course, the catering service, department stores and private companies want the younger ones. They won't take women in their 40's."

He said such women could only find re-employment through women's or "neighborhood committees", small grass-roots government organizations that in the past focused mostly on enforcing the one child per family policy and reporting on suspicious political activity. Such committees have recently branched out, offering dry cleaning services and helping finding jobs, among other things.

Gen Wei, an earnest middle aged woman, runs the job placement programme at the Sanheli Neighborhood Committee, which covers 5,000 people in a compound of dreary five-storey concrete apartment blocks linked by a web of gas and water pipes that weave through the air.

Sitting at her desk in a spare shack decorated with a huge poster bearing the names of local Communist Party members she shook her head as she flipped through a thick black binder containing 100 forms from people looking for work, 70 to 80 per cent of them women. She said she found part-time work for 40: delivering newspapers; cooking in a company canteen; helping with child care, elder care or housework.

"The men are easiest," she said. "They usually have a skill, like fixing plumbing. The women are harder, they have no skills, especially women over 40.

Through the committee's help, Liu Xiuhong, a quite 48-year-old in a frilly cream-coloured blouse, has found work as a part-time nanny for the 18-month-old son of a 30-year-old lawyer and her husband, a middle class couple who recently bought an apartment in the neighborhood.

Ms Liu said she was among 100 working women laid off by a small state-owned sewing machine factory early last year. Although the factory is supposed to give her a monthly unemployment payment as well as medical coverage, it is broke and she has received nothing since January. She makes about $230 a month as a nanny.

The Tianjin Women's Federation has set up something called Home Service, which offers laid off factory workers jobs as domestics. Since 1997, 80,000 women have come for help to the Women's Federation, said Wang Zhiguo, its chairwoman, who estimated that 10,000 had been re-trained.

Xiao Yuhua, 38, a cheerful woman with a broad grin, said she had tripled her income, to about $ 1000 a month, since she started work as a housekeeper for Women's Federation Home Service; she was laid off from her job at Tianjin Textile Plant three year ago.

Kang Li, 31, who had coiffed hair, bright red lipstick and a cell phone, said the federation had helped her start a successful business selling steamed buns. But such success will be harder to come by now the number of unemployed women has sky-rocketed.

Last month the United Nations Development Programme and the Chinese government announced a US$1 million ( HK$7.7 million ), three-year project to help the laid off working women in Tianjin, teaching them technical and business skills as well as giving them small new-business loans.

Significantly, the programme also includes gender-sensitivity training for employment officials, who are quick to confide that a woman, at 40, is "too old" to learn to use a computer, or "too fat" to be hired.

Such biases run so deep women often seem to share their culture's low opinion of them. "Being laid off is difficult for men and women, but the men recover quickly," said Yang Xiyuan, a retired lawyer in Beijing. She added: "I met laid-off women workers from a textile factory who were given new jobs in a bank, but they learned too slowly. They were all in their 40s, so their reaction were not so quick. They just couldn't do it fast enough."

( Source: South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 23rd October, 1998)