Social protection

Promoting gender equality in the labour market: gender, labour and migration in China

By Mr Tim De Meyer, Director, ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia

Statement | Beijing, China | 18 November 2016
Mr. Benedict Bingham, Country Director, PRC Resident Mission (ADB),
Prof. Xu Yuebin, School of Social Devt. & Public Policy, Beijing Normal University (BNU),
Ladies and gentlemen,

Good morning. First of all thank you to ADB and BNU for a fruitful cooperation and for the opportunity to make a few remarks at the opening of our joint workshop. Congratulations to BNU on the excellent organization of the workshop. And, of course, a warm welcome to all the academics and practitioners – your contributions are essential to enhancing our collective understanding of an important topic that continues to elude the political debate: the role and the position of women working and aspiring to work in the many transformations China is set to go through in the next few decades – ageing, urbanization, climate change, technological change and global integration.

The ILO is a specialized agency of the United Nations bringing governments, business and trade unions together in the pursuit of decent work. In essence, decent work is about finding ways of bringing the best out of women and men of all ages in the interest of lives worth living, thriving economies and socially stable societies.

Globally, two decades after the world’s largest gathering of women in Beijing adopted a far-reaching agenda for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment, working women are better off today but the progress is not satisfactory.

Much has been accomplished on the political front. For example, up to now, 172 ILO member States had ratified the Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No. 100) and 173 had ratified the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111). Those numbers are much closer to the universal ratification these fundamental standards deserve. The same cannot be said for the technical standards that govern types of employment important to women workers: domestic work; home work; part-time work; even night and underground work that with modern technology become more and more open around the world.

Progress on the ground remains equally elusive

Globally, only about half the world’s women are in the labour force, compared to nearly 80 per cent of men – a figure basically unchanged in 20 years. A large gender pay gap has narrowed but not much, with women still earning on average 23 per cent less than men. And new evidence is emerging that mothers suffer a wage penalty, often over and above the gender pay gap. Despite progress, 41 per cent of all women globally, still do not have adequate maternity protection.

Women continue to dominate low-wage jobs, vulnerable jobs such as healthcare workers or domestic workers – all adding to a stubborn gender pay gap.

Today women own and manage over 30 per cent of all businesses, but they tend to be concentrated in micro and small enterprises. Women sit on 19 per cent of board seats globally, and only 5 per cent of the CEOs of the world’s largest corporations are women.

We need solutions to care work if women are truly to have equal opportunities in the world of work. The “double burden” of working women can no longer be ignored as populations of all countries are ageing, and people are living longer.

Violence inside or outside the workplace leads to lower productivity, increased absenteeism, lower wages and higher turnover. Some countries are beginning to calculate the economic cost of violence and suggest conservative estimates between 1 and 1.5 percent of GDP.

China’s central planning heritage has ensured truly impressive results for workplace gender equality, epitomized in one of the highest labour force participation rates for women in the world. The current 13th Five-Year Plan reiterates commitment to the fundamental state policy of equality between men and women, to fair participation and to sharing more of the fruits of development. Equality rights in the sphere of politics, education; work; property ownership; personal, marriage and family rights are well entrenched in the 1992 Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women.

The Labour Contract Law (2007) and Employment Promotion Law (2008) made history by including provisions on workplace discrimination – or fair employment as it is called.

The Social Insurance Law (2010) established maternity insurance as one of the five pillars of social security in China. The Special Regulation on Labour Protection of Women Workers extended maternity leave to 14 weeks, and strengthened the prohibition and prevention of sexual harassment in the workplace. Some provinces and cities in China have already gone further.

The Communist Party Resolution on comprehensively deepening reform of 2013 vowed to remove all institutional barriers and employment discrimination that affect equal employment, such as the birthplace of a person (cities or countryside), industries, social status and gender.

Yet, the real challenge is complacency as market forces play a gradually bigger role in the allocation of human resources and the private sector becomes the biggest provider of employment opportunities. Will market forces prove capable of tapping the full potential that the nation will need in its pursuit of innovation and economic transformation? This is not certain: labour force participation rates in China are receding from their lofty heights, admittedly for men and women alike, but more rapidly for women. The labour force participation for young women is nearly 5 per cent lower than for young men despite the fact that the educational attainment gap between men and women is closed, even in tertiary education in urban areas. Is it family responsibilities? Is it discouragement for lack of opportunities? Is it perhaps a skills mismatch more pronounced for young women as the jobs favoured by the economy of the new normal – the STEM jobs in science, technology, engineering and math – build on educational curricula that have traditionally attracted fewer women? Or do we need to consider the issue from another angle and wonder if the “new normal” should improve the valuation, formalization and quality of the care economy jobs that an ageing society inevitably needs?

Indeed, we will probably need to look at gender equality from various viewpoints and research disciplines.

1) Institutional barriers
  • Unequal retirement ages for women and men;
  • Areas of work prohibited to women with protective intentions reinforce gender stereotypes and limit employment opportunities for women;
  • Equal pay for work of equal value has not yet been in implemented by national law, wage policy, and wage negotiation;
2) Socio-cultural norms and attitudes which limit many women’s opportunities
  • Discrimination stemming from age, gender and region remains and is likely to increase as private sector employment expands. A cursory look at job advertisements suggest women are discriminated against in the recruitment process.
  • Women spend almost four times more time than men on caring and household chores (4 hours vs 1.5 hours daily), which consequently leads to a double burden of family responsibilities and work.
  • Voice and representation of women. Women hold more than half of management positions at junior levels, but their representation dwindles rapidly at senior levels. At the latest count, among the CSI 300 companies, more than 40 per cent had no women on their boards, a pattern that is especially pronounced at state-owned companies.
3) Access to quality employment
  • Gender wage gap: the income of women is 67.3 per cent of men in urban areas and 56.0 per cent of men in rural areas.
  • Rural urban migration breaks down the support networks for childcare traditionally provided by the extended family but can be reconstructed with collectively financed child care support as part of a social protection floor. The relaxation of the one-child policy is a welcome development but needs supporting policies. Without these, more women may withdraw from the labour force altogether or participate only in short-term or part-time employment in their residential localities.
  • China is promoting entrepreneurship, but women-owned micro and small businesses have less access to capital. This financing or credit gap is estimated at around 10 per cent of GDP.
  • The health care sector is key to the well-being of China’s people. Improving the quality of its services critically depends on the quality of its jobs in areas such as compensation, modern safety and health management of occupational diseases and protection against violence.
4) Migration – a combination of all of the above
The most recent annual report of China’s National Bureau of Statistics paints a picture of China’s migrant labour force that invites important questions for further research. The migrant labour force in China is still growing, albeit at a declining rate. It is getting older and better educated. Migrant workers nowadays are more likely to take up jobs in the service sector than in the traditional sectors such as construction or manufacturing. Not surprisingly, perhaps then, is that a higher proportion of women is joining the migrant workforce. But here is the rub. The average wage of migrant workers is roughly one eighth of the disposable income of urban residents. The highest-paid sectors are construction and logistics, and the lowest paid are community-based service/repair – typically the sort of sectors in which one would expect respectively men and women to make up the bulk of the workforce. Some 85 % of the migrant workforce work more than 44 hours per week. All of the annual wage increases are eaten up by rising living costs, mostly housing. And that is for those who have their wages paid on time, or indeed at all. The average unpaid wage owed to workers amounts to about 3 months of migrant workers’ average wages. Unpaid wages are trending upwards and the phenomenon is not helped by the fact that only slightly more than a third of migrant workers have signed employment contracts.

The Future of Women at Work

The Organization is now preparing to mark its 100th anniversary with a Centenary reflection on the Future of Work. What is already certain is that the future of work cannot be addressed without the future of women at work. Promoting decent jobs for women is imperative. It is not just a matter of rights but of what is right for women, for men, for labour markets, for economic growth and for sustainable development. What is also certain is that change will not happen organically. It requires specific, targeted, and courageous policy interventions.

Thank you for your attention. I wish the workshop a complete success.