Job seekers in China face all manner of discrimination

Students looking at job postings at a job fair at Shenyang Aerospace University in Shenyang, China's north-east Liaoning province, last month. More than three-quarters of recent graduates said they experienced discrimination of some form, with employ
Students looking at job postings at a job fair at Shenyang Aerospace University in Shenyang, China's north-east Liaoning province, last month. More than three-quarters of recent graduates said they experienced discrimination of some form, with employers asking about their home town or even their zodiac sign.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Ms Xu Guiying's first job interview 10 years ago remains unforgettable, but for the wrong reasons.

The Jiangxi native had applied to be a manager's assistant at a local coal mining company, but got a rude shock in the manager's office.

"He looked at me and asked if I was applying for the position of cleaning lady," said Ms Xu, now 32.

"I continued with the interview, but of course I did not get the job."

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Looking back on that episode, Ms Xu said that while she had thought a worker's capability was more important, "it taught me that looks and how I present myself matter".

She later became a pharmaceuticals sales representative before starting her own business.

Ms Xu's experience is not uncommon in China, where employment discrimination is a persistent problem despite comprehensive laws prohibiting it.

NO ENFORCEMENT ACTION

The problem is that even after such cases make the news, the relevant ministries do not appear to be taking enforcement action against errant firms. Job seekers of course see this, and wonder whether lodging a complaint will yield any results.

PROFESSOR XIONG BINGQI, vice-president of 21st Century Education Research Institute, on employers flouting anti-discrimination laws.

The issue resurfaced last month, the start of China's job-hunting season, when a recruitment advertisement created an uproar on Chinese social media.

An employee at Meituan Dianping, one of the country's three largest online food takeout platforms, had put out an ad for a product operator. But potential candidates were told they need not apply if they are unattractive, have too many paper qualifications, believe in traditional Chinese medicine, or are from north-east China.

The company was forced to issue a statement to clarify that the employee was not from its human resource department but an ordinary staff member expressing his personal views, and that he had been dismissed for his actions.

The offending post revealed the multifaceted nature and pervasiveness of workplace discrimination here, which experts attribute to the uneven power dynamics between employers and employees and the government's lax enforcement of anti-discrimination laws.

Underscoring the increased power that companies have in recruitment is the fact that 7.95 million fresh graduates will be joining the workforce this year, the highest number since the People's Republic of China was established in 1949.

More than three-quarters of recent graduates said they experienced discrimination of some form, with employers asking about their home town or even their zodiac sign, according to a survey released this week, while the Beijing Youth Daily newspaper spotlighted the growing cottage industry of body doubles for job seekers who have to pass tests for tuberculosis and hepatitis B.

China's Employment Promotion Law enacted in 2007 prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity, race, gender, religious belief and migrant worker status, and in 2010 it officially forbade medical testing.

"The problem is that even after such cases make the news, the relevant ministries do not appear to be taking enforcement action against errant firms," said Professor Xiong Bingqi, vice-president of 21st Century Education Research Institute.

"Job seekers of course see this, and wonder whether lodging a complaint will yield any results."

A culture where saving face is important also means that while victims may complain privately, many choose not to seek official redress, said Assistant Professor Lu Jiefeng from the University of International Business and Economics.

He noted that statistics compiled by NGOs show that less than 90 employment discrimination cases have been filed in Chinese courts over the past decade, despite frequent news reports of recruitment practices that violate anti-discrimination laws.

Prof Xiong said the latest case showed growing awareness and online pressure can force companies to change their hiring practices, but more need to come forward before lasting change can be seen. "Stronger enforcement action can happen, but only if the government sees this as a growing problem."

• Additional reporting by Carol Feng

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 12, 2017, with the headline 'Job seekers in China face all manner of discrimination'. Print Edition | Subscribe