BEIJING — Seamstress Li Xingling is out of work. So are her mother and sister.
For six years, Ms. Li worked in a Beijing factory stitching tents. Then, on the verge of bankruptcy, her employer merged with another company and "sent home" half of its 500 workers. "Resting" employees technically remain on a factory roster but get only a subsistence wage and are forced to fend for themselves.
Li, who gets less than $10 per month from her employer, barely supports herself and her daughter with part-time work in department stores and other odd jobs. Her mother and sister, also textile workers, are in similar predicaments.
"These days, women are dismissed more often than men," says Li, as she scrutinizes job postings at the East Beijing District Employment Center, a government-run jobs service. "In this market economy, the woman is more vulnerable."
Raised on Chairman Mao Zedong's socialist dictum that women "hold up half the sky," Chinese women today smart under the harsh inequalities of market economics more than men do, Chinese labor experts say.
As China moves from central planning to capitalism, decrepit state enterprises are losing government subsidies and forced to cut staff. Women over the age of 35 are most likely to lose their jobs and most difficult to retrain, reports the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the government labor organization. Barely a third of the salaried work force, women account for 60 percent of the country's growing ranks of jobless, the federation says.
Today's reality contrasts sharply with the government's equal-pay-for-equal-work policy of the past. After their victory in 1949, the Chinese Communists urged women to work outside the home, strive for equal status, and help propel China's modernization. Although men still dominated the government and the Communist Party, and women often failed to win promotions to senior jobs, women achieved near parity in pay and training with men in many lines of work
"This problem of women's unemployment has become sharper in the last two years," says Ma Shulang, director of the East Beijing District Employment Center, which has started a special job-search service for women.
"Reemploying the woman is more difficult than the man," says Ms. Ma, explaining she was able to place less than one-third of the 1,000 women applicants last year. "More and more workers are looking for jobs, and less and less work units are looking for employees. And when they do want workers, they prefer men over women."
And the problem is only going to worsen, analysts say. Across China, countless people are fired by factories striving for efficiency and profits. From January to March this year, more than a quarter of China's 370,000 state-run companies lost money and bankruptcies almost doubled over the 1995 period, the State Statistical Bureau reported.
About 41,000 failed state companies had stopped production by the end of last year, suspending payments to more than 5 million workers and pensioners. China's rising official unemployment rate of 2.9 percent does not include millions of "sent-home" workers who often get $20 or less per month, not enough to live on.
Of China's 147 million urban workers, the government admits that 40 million will need help to find new jobs. Through the turn of the century, there will be a projected shortfall of 16 million new jobs in cities. On top of that, 124 million unemployed people in the countryside seek work, according to official estimates.
Fearing a rise in social discontent, the government is scrambling to contain swelling joblessness. Several official organizations, including the All-China Women's Federation, have launched job and training information services for women. In Beijing, which has 54,000 laid-off women workers, the government Labor Bureau announced a $370 reward to any company hiring a laid-off woman worker over 35 years of age for a period of at least two years.
Yet, the problem has become so acute in some cities that antipoverty programs, once focused only in the countryside, are being introduced for poor urban women.
Recently, the World Bank reported that since 1985, poverty reduction in China has slowed even as the economy boomed at 10 percent annual growth. Chinese poor, subsisting on $30 per month or less, number more than 300 million, three times the official estimate, it said.
Project Happiness, started in early 1995 to raise donations for poor rural mothers, is now turning its sights on women in cities. The program, which provides small loans for mothers to develop independent means of support, is launching a pilot project in Tianjin, a northeastern Chinese industrial city with widespread joblessness.
"The situation has changed, and there are now a lot of poor women in cities," says Shen Guoxiang, an official with the China Population Welfare Foundation, which runs the project. "In Chinese cities, there are many wives and husbands who have both lost their jobs."
Chinese labor experts say job shortages and inadequate training are forcing women to lower their expectations. For decades, older workers have been accustomed to the "iron rice bowl" cradle-to-grave employment system and struggle to adapt to the new job competitiveness.
Many laid-off women are being forced to settle for more menial jobs such as maid service. "Before, they didn't want to do the dirty work, the heavy work. Now they are being forced to change their minds and accept it," says Ms. Ma, who runs the employment center. "We try to counsel them and help them find a job. But, there are a lot of women who are depressed."