LAST November, 300 young women workers at the Taiwanese-owned Yongqi Footwear Company walked off their jobs for several days after a colleague was accused of stealing and was locked up in a doghouse for several hours.
The strike and the press uproar over the incident have brought some change for some 500 factory workers who left inland rural homes for jobs in the boom economy of coastal Fujian Province: Their overtime pay is one-third higher, food in the factory canteen has improved, and the Taiwanese managers no longer harass and search them for stolen goods.
The women say they are now forming a labor union, with Chinese government help, to press their case for an increase in their $40 monthly wage.
``Only after the big bosses from Taiwan came to investigate did the food get better and our overtime increased,'' says Ji Xiaolan, who only a year before worked in the fields of her native Jiangxi Province. ``We're now setting up our own trade union organization.''
As millions here prosper in China's boom times, women workers who fuel the economic engine are being left behind by the country's market reforms. Equality for women, once a cornerstone of Communist China, is eroding - within decrepit state enterprises as well as in glossy foreign ventures. Women workers are the first to get fired, the most widely exploited, and the most frequent victims in the industrial accidents that have hit China in the past year.
Western and Chinese analysts say that women anchor the growing underclass of Chinese jobless and rely on inadequate pensions and benefits that are often not paid. According to a 1993 survey of 1,230 state enterprises by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, China's 50.6 million women workers make up 38 percent of the work force, but account for 60 percent of the 6 million officially unemployed, the official Economic Daily reports.
Despite gains for women during the more than four decades of Communist Party rule, ``Chinese women have less opportunity to get educated, and this has resulted in lower employment status and [fewer] senior positions,'' says an analyst with China's official labor union.
Women also are at the center of a growing storm over worker treatment and safety in foreign-run ventures, many located in fast-growing eastern provinces such as Fujian. Hundreds of young women daily pour into this provincial capital from poor interior provinces, seeking jobs and alternatives to their dreary lives back home.
``Working in the factory in the city is fun. The food is better. And I can save 100 renminbi ($11) a month,'' Zhu Nianhua, a shoe factory worker, said as she sat in the dingy room with broken windows that she shares with three other young women.
``Living conditions are better than in rural areas. At home, we have to work in the fields and are exposed to the sun. But here we don't have to'' do that kind of work, she added.
Fujian, a Chinese economic powerhouse with close links to nearby Taiwan, has 310,000 workers in more than 5,000 foreign-run enterprises, 58 percent of them women. In labor-intensive industries such as textiles, shoes, and garments, the percentage can go as high as 90 percent, reports Workers Daily newspaper.
But, Western and Chinese observers say the young women often have to work under appalling conditions: few safety measures; long, unbroken shifts; physical punishment; arbitrary firings; and wage embezzlement and deductions. Last year, dozens of women workers were killed in Fujian and neighboring Guangdong Province in fires in poorly maintained factories.
At fault are usually small and medium-sized factories run principally by Koreans, Japanese, and Chinese from Hong Kong and Taiwan, say the Chinese press and analysts. Mirroring the national picture, only about 20 percent of the foreign enterprises are unionized.
Worried that growing labor unrest in China could undermine its legitimacy, Communist officials have been forced to call for strengthening trade unions in foreign ventures, although they worry that such a move will scare away potential foreign investors and chances to make money.
``China doesn't have a sound legal system [or] labor law,'' says the trade union official. ``Joint venture owners are oftentimes petty capitalists. They don't have much money, so they are against unions in their ventures.''
Demands for more labor unions are increasing tensions among foreign businessmen who worry that union presence will only inject more official control rather than act as an honest intermediary in labor disputes. According to government figures, those disputes jumped 50 percent to more than 12,000 in 1993.
While admitting there are abuses, foreign factory managers also contend Chinese workers are often poor workers who steal and resent discipline and hard work. Chen Muchuan, factory director at the shoe factory, said that before the doghouse incident, business had been bad due to delayed deliveries of raw materials and that worker layoffs were in the offing.
``The workers simply don't know how to observe discipline. The factory rule is a fine of 10 yuan if a worker is caught spitting, but still they spit,'' he says, standing in a clean, properly lit workshop where workers stand around a stalled assembly line, chatting and reading.
``I pay a Chinese college graduate 500 yuan ($55) a month, but he still doesn't know how to supervise them,'' he adds.