A bumpy ride

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 April, 2006, 12:00am

JUST BEFORE accounting manager Wang Jimin went on maternity leave in Beijing last December, she got an unexpected bonus. Her boss said he'd still pay part of her salary while she was away. 'I thought he was doing me a great favour since I wouldn't be back for such a long time,' she says.

Wang had no idea, however, that she was entitled to the full amount. There was another surprise in store for the 29-year-old when she returned to work at Beijing Yuqu Musical Instruments in the capital's southern Xuanwu district last month: her job had been taken by someone else and she'd been demoted to cashier. The 800 yuan per month that she'd been receiving on maternity leave became her new salary - less than a third of her original wage of 2,500 yuan. Her boss, Ma Jun, claims her performance had been unsatisfactory. Wang says she was punished for falling pregnant.

Wang's experience reflects a growing dilemma for career women in the mainland's competitive marketplace. Hence the saying, 'Choose the baby, and you'll lose your job. Choose the job, and you'll lose your husband.'

For a growing number of women like Wang, a baby - for most, the only one - frequently means demotion to junior positions, with fewer benefits and less pay.

Ma employed the replacement accounting manager on a cheaper wage. 'The person who was supposed to handle my work temporarily took over my position because she asked for less than 2,000 yuan a month,' says Wang, who no longer works for the company. 'She was trained by me before I went on leave. It's very unfair,' she says, sitting in the shabby apartment she shares with her husband and their four-month-old daughter.

Mainland employers can't legally terminate the contracts of pregnant or breast-feeding workers and, among other regulations, they're obliged to pay a worker's full salaries for the period of her pregnancy. But how these and other rules are enforced is less clear-cut and companies are finding ways to circumvent the system, lawyers say.

Wang Xiangqian, an associate law professor from the China Institute of Industrial Relations, who recently helped draft a new labour law, says existing provisions for protecting pregnant workers are adequate. The key is getting employers to abide by the law. 'Some employers are getting around the law,' says Wang. 'But it's not an issue that can be solved by a new labour law. The problem lies in enforcement.'

The law entitles pregnant workers and new mothers to generous provisions. These include 90 days' paid maternity leave, a guarantee of employment during and after pregnancy, reimbursement of maternity-related medical expenses, and rest breaks for breast-feeding during the day. Under the law, women have the right to bring their babies to work. Otherwise, they're supposed to be allowed to return home to feed their babies, with the travelling time counting as work time.

According to the government-backed All China Women's Federation, almost 30 per cent of women working in state-owned enterprises were denied these benefits in 2000. In the private sector, 80 per cent of women were estimated to have missed out. Another survey by the federation last year found that 40 per cent of women in the state and private sectors were still denied any form of maternity benefit, and 25 per cent were denied maternity leave.

Women can take errant companies to court. In the capital, workers can file a complaint with the Beijing Labour Disputes Committee, but it's a laborious and, for many, expensive process. Under mainland law, an arbitration ruling is issued within 60 days of a filed complaint, but if the complainant is dissatisfied with the decision and institutes a formal challenge, the proceedings can take up to a year. Many people decide to get another job instead. The number of pregnancy- related discrimination cases isn't available because it's classified by the committee as a state secret.

Xia Yu, 27, left her job as a marketing manager with a Guangdong-based food manufacturer five years ago, when her boss asked her to take a lower paid, non-marketing position after she became pregnant. He was happy to offer her full maternity pay and benefits - but not her original job and pay level. Xia says he was uncomfortable with a pregnant woman entertaining mostly male clients - a key part of her marketing role.

For Xia, the concern wasn't about income - her businessman husband makes a comfortable living - but job satisfaction. She didn't see why she should take on a less interesting job because she was having a baby, so she quit instead.

Other women choose not to have the child. Helen Chen Hui became pregnant three years ago just after being appointed the sales director of a Beijing-based software company. Fearing that she might be replaced if she took maternity leave, Chen had an abortion, with the backing of her husband. She didn't feel she had a choice, she says. 'I was new to that position and my subordinate was very aggressive,' says Chen, who's pregnant again. 'If I kept that baby and took maternity leave, he could use the three months to get acquainted with my clients and build relationships with them. It would be hard for me to win them back when I returned.'

Chen still works for the same company. Now more secure in her post, she's decided to keep the baby this time. 'I will treat it well,' she says. 'I owe it to the baby. It should have come to the world earlier.'

The old cradle-to-grave welfare system, which offered pregnant workers extensive - and universal - protection, has all but disappeared as the economic liberalisation that began in the 1980s takes root on the mainland. 'It's an issue of transition,' says Jiang Yongzhi, a lawyer specialising in labour disputes. 'The economy follows market rules, while the legal system still lags behind.'

At this stage of the market-based economy, Jiang says, benefits often give way to profits. 'Cheap labour is an important competitive factor for most small and medium-sized private enterprises. And hiring a pregnant worker means hiring someone who can't work efficiently for about one year. It's an increase in labour costs and a decrease in productivity for them.'

Wang doesn't know much about the law, but her experience made her more aware of her rights. Within four days of learning about her demotion, she filed a complaint with the Beijing Labour Dispute Committee. She's still waiting for the arbitration ruling. Ma, who refused to be interviewed, failed to show up to the first scheduled mediation meeting.

Wang's friends and family have urged her to drop the case and get another job. Because she didn't have a formal job contract, she's in a weak position. 'I was angry at that time and wanted very much to seek justice,' Wang says. 'Now I don't know if I'm right [to challenge the demotion]. I'm not sure if I can win without any formal contract. Even if I win, the compensation is only 25 per cent [of the salary owed]. I'm afraid it's not enough to pay the lawyer,' she says with a sigh.

But for now, Wang isn't giving up her fight for justice.