Earlier this month, a little-known credit union in central China’s Henan province made headlines for proposing a policy that would require its female employees to ask for approval to get pregnant—and fine them should they happen to do so without permission.
“Women of reproductive age should schedule their pregnancy and female employees with unexpected pregnancies will be fined 1,000 yuan ($161),” state-run newspaper the Global Times quoted the Jiaozuo city credit cooperative notice as saying. “The schedule should be consistent with the annual work plan of different departments to avoid work disruptions.”
Only employees who had worked at the cooperative for at least a year could apply for permission to get pregnant, the notice said, and there would be a scheduled window of time for employees who were granted permission to conceive. Violators wouldn’t be considered for promotions or year-end bonuses.
In a country where women make up 64% of the work force, and where having a child is of utmost importance, the proposed rule riled many citizens. After all, many Chinese women still abide by the East Asian post-pregnancy tradition of zuo yue zi, or “sitting the month,” in which post-partum women follow a strict set of dietary and lifestyle rules to help their bodies heal. In a quintessential capitalism-meets-communism nod to the traditional sitting month, there even are posh post-partum recovery centers that charge more than $200 a day for a new mom to rest and recharge in luxury—think manicures in bed after a breastfeeding lesson.
“It’s clearly illegal,” says Jonathan Isaacs, a partner at Baker & McKenzie in Hong Kong, who specializes in labor and employment issues in China. “When a company employs a woman it cannot restrict a woman from becoming married or getting pregnant.”
Labor laws that protect women in China have been improving in recent years. In 2012, the government updated its paid maternity leave laws to allow female workers to take 98 days of paid leave, up from 90 days. The law even allows female employees who have had an abortion or miscarriage anywhere from 15 days to six weeks, depending on the scenario, and women who have unplanned C-sections or a difficult childbirth can take more than the typical 98 days, depending on their local government’s rules.
But, as with many policies in China, there’s a large gray area. And while it’s against the law to fire a female employee during her pregnancy, it’s quite common for female employees to ask their managers for permission to get pregnant, or to announce their pregnancies very early on.
“On paper, in the past decade there has been improvement in legal protection for women, but the issue is enforcement,” Isaacs says. “Right now other labor issues are seen as more sensitive and could lead to social instability.” In other words, issues like unpaid or stagnant wages take enforcement priority, since Chinese leaders deem them more likely to lead to worker protests.
Some foreigners workers have also reported that their Chinese employers refuse to conform to laws protecting pregnant women. According to The Telegraph, companies have little financial incentive to follow the rules, since it’s often prohibitively expensive for expat employees to come after them for missed pay or illegal termination.
That said, there are regions in China that appear to be more forward thinking on women-oriented labor laws. Earlier this year, Shanxi province in northern China and the city of Wuhuan in Hubei province drafted proposals to give female workers one or two days of paid leave during menstruation, provided they have a note from a hospital or medical institute. The proposal also said women who are on their feet for much of their job should be given time to rest.