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China: Pervasive Discrimination Under Two-Child Policy

Companies Fire Pregnant Women; Only Seek ‘Married Women with Children’

© 2021 Brian Stauffer for Human Rights Watch

(New York) – China’s two-child policy has made commonplace pregnancy-related discrimination against women in the workplace since first imposed in 2016, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. 

The 37-page report, “‘Take Maternity Leave and You’ll Be Replaced’: China’s Two-Child Policy and Workplace Gender Discrimination,” draws on court documents, surveys, social media posts, and media reports to detail the various forms of pregnancy-related discrimination women have experienced during the two-child policy era. The policy allows all couples to have two children, putting an end to the one-child policy that had been in effect for 35 years.

“Many women have taken to the internet, the media, and the courts to tell their stories of workplace abuse,” said Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “By pushing for a higher birthrate without adequate employment protections, the Chinese government has given employers a license to harass and discriminate.”

Chinese authorities should fully enforce legal prohibitions against gender and pregnancy-based discrimination in employment. The government should stop regulating the number of children families are allowed to have, stop pressuring women to have children, and ensure equitable caregiver leave policies.

The two-child policy means that women can potentially take two maternity leaves, not just one, as in the one-child policy era. Many companies have sought to avoid this through job advertisements, interviews, and workplace treatment that discriminates against women with no child or just one child.

Numerous job advertisements in China specify a requirement or preference for men, or for female applicants who already have children, on the assumption that women without children are more likely to take maternity leave. An ad recently posted on the job search website for a manager position in a clothing company in Beijing stated, “age between around 30 and 35, already have children, good looking, and good disposition.”

Many women said they were asked about their childbearing status during job interviews. A recent college graduate said all five companies that she interviewed with asked about her marriage and childbearing plans, and three of them told her that they would not offer her the job if she wanted to have a child. A mother of one child was asked to sign a contract promising that she would not have a second for at least three years as a condition for a job offer.

Employers can impose various punishments on employees who become pregnant. A woman in Guangdong province was fired days after she informed her employer that she was pregnant. A company in Fujian province fired a woman on maternity leave on the grounds of “extreme operation difficulties” although it experienced no business-related losses. A company in Shandong province fined an employee 2,000 yuan (US$300) for having a second child earlier than permitted in her employment contract.

Sometimes companies make the work environment for pregnant employees so difficult that they were effectively forced to resign. A company in northeast Jilin province made a seven-and-a-half-month pregnant employee work at a construction site in the winter.

China’s constitution guarantees equal rights between men and women. While laws ban gender- and pregnancy-based discrimination in employment, they provide few specific enforcement mechanisms, leaving victims with inadequate avenues for redress. Some women, after suffering discriminatory treatment, choose to file complaints with local labor arbitration boards or courts. Their claims are often unsuccessful because legal standards are unclear, or they face insurmountable bureaucratic or evidentiary requirements. Even when employees win their cases, compensation awarded to victims is too often too small to justify bringing the lawsuit – and penalties imposed on companies are too insignificant to serve as a deterrent for future violators.

A Beijing woman who sought legal remedy after being fired for being pregnant said, “[I] just wanted an explanation, an apology, and just, fair treatment,” but “the difficulty in defending [my] rights has been beyond my imagination.”

In the face of a demographic crisis created in part by the one-child policy, the Chinese government is now pushing some women to have more children. Articles in the state media tout the virtue of being stay-at-home mothers and propaganda slogans displayed across the country urge women to have a second child as a way to “contribute to the country.”

“Instead of pressing women to have a second child for ‘the country’s sake,’ China’s government should fulfill its international obligations by ensuring equal treatment in employment and reproductive rights,” Wang said. “Chinese women have already endured decades of harmful interference in their personal and work lives by a government that disregards women’s rights.”

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