Women question early retirement
( 2003-10-09 09:28) (China Daily)
When the pioneers of New China formulated rules al-lowing women to retire five years ahead of their male colleagues out of concern for their health, they did not foresee that their goodwill would be resented by many women decades later.
The policy has been challenged by women, particularly white-collar professionals and civil servants, who are increasingly sceptical about the fairness of the rules of yesteryear. Times have changed, they argue, and technology and efficiency have relieved more and more people from hard physical labour. So the different retirement ages for men and women appear to discriminate against women.
"I'd like to work till the age of 60," says Gui, a female retiree who used to be a technician with a research institution in Beijing, and had to leave her post in 1995 when she was 55 to honour the retirement rule.
"I was forced to retire at an age when I could have done better than ever before. My children had grown up and had their own careers, which rid me of family commitments. I'm still in good health. But what can I do? That's the rule," grumbles the woman, who did not want to give her full name.
The discrepancy in retiring ages for women and men, stipulated in the Provisional Regulation on Civil Servants issued in 1993 and other government rulings, came under heavy attack from delegates to the Ninth Chinese Women's National Congress in August.
"The regulation was formulated shortly after New China was founded in 1949, for the sake of alleviating women's family burden of bearing and rearing at least two children," says Xia Yinlan, vice-chairperson of China Society of Marriage and Family Studies. "Indeed it was out of care for women as their workload could be heavy in those days. But now, the one-child policy has eased their family burden. To let these people, mostly well-educated, retire at 55 is actually a waste of social resources."
Generally speaking, a woman completes undergraduate study at about 23, and will spend approximately three years each for a masters and a doctorate degree. A highly educated woman can barely work for 30 years if she has to retire at 55.
As it has been inscribed in China's Constitution that "men and women enjoy equal rights," Xia, who is also a professor at China University of Politics and Law, says the regulation setting different retiring ages for men and women is "unconstitutional" and runs contrary to the government commitment to regarding "equality between men and women" as a basic State policy.
Tan Lin, director of Women's Studies Institute of the All-China Women's Federation, is more explicit.
"Men and women have the equal right to work. However, due to the decree of early retirement for women, women become losers in the on-going government restructuring, for they are normally excluded from consideration for further promotion at county-level governments when they reach 40, although in cities the age could be extended to 50. Thus women have fewer opportunities in terms of on-job training, career development and promotion."
She notes that scarce women representation in the country's senior leadership has much to do with their early retirement.
Early retirement also affects the pension and, thus, income for women, as the proportion of pension largely depends on the length of service and position at retirement.
"Few women can receive the maximum pension at the compulsory retirement age," says Tan Lin. Generally, only those with 35 years or longer of service are entitled to the maximum pension. But a study conducted by Tan's institute shows that the average length of service for female civil servants in China is 31.6 years as against 39.3 years for males.
A lower pension would thus compromise the quality of life for women in view of their average 73 years of life expectancy, which is four years longer than men.
Huang Rongsheng, an executive with Southwest Normal University, regards the early retirement as "unfair" for women with higher education who reach the pinnacle of their careers in their 50s.
China's Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests issued in 1992 stipulates that women have equal rights to work with men. However, the law has no clear statement on the retirement age for men and women. The Provisional Regulation on Civil Service issued a year later contains an article stipulating men's retirement age at 60 and women's at 55 - which has been applied thereafter.
Ever since the regulation was released, the early retirement age for female civil servants has become an issue of controversy. In the past few years, more than 1,500 proposals have been tabled at the annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.
"Early retirement means less income and a waste of talent," acknowledges Yang Peiying, a senior official with the Ministry of Personnel who is in charge of salary, welfare and retirement.
Xia Yinlan, who is on the expert team for the revision of the Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, reveals that it's likely to incorporate a specific provision on the same retirement age for men and women.
But not all people favour the equal-age lobbying.
An aged man living in Beijing's central Xuanwu District dismisses the idea, citing "women's natural physiological weakness".
Many are worried that extending women's service might aggravate the already-grim unemployment situation.
"If the government allows women to work for another five or 10 years, it's like adding frost to snow for current unemployment (officially at 4.5 per cent)," says Pan Jintang, professor with the School of Labour Relations and Human Resources at the Renmin University of China.
This view, however, does not hold water, says Feng Yuan, a senior editor with China Women's News, a daily newspaper on and for women. "If job vacancies are needed for the young, then both men and women can retire before 60," she says. "It's unfair to have just one gender make the sacrifice."
But women other than civil servants may not be that eager to retire late, as Professor Pan cautions that female workers engaged in labour-intensive industries or companies running in the red might not be as keen to work longer as their peers in the civil service.
"I only wish to retire as early as possible as long as my pension is guaranteed," says a 47-year-old female cotton spinner.
For many women in this category, late retirement does not make any sense.
Professor Xia Yinlan explains that in revising the law on women's rights and interests, "our focus now is the equal rights in the legal form. First, rules and regulations based on law should guarantee women enjoy the right of retiring at the same age with men. Whether women exercise the right is up to them.
"Both women's equal rights and their personal choices will be taken into consideration in the revision. Women should be able to retire at the same age as men when their capacity and health permit and choose early retirement if they wish," she says.
Yang Dawen, professor with the Law School of the Renmin University, believes it highly "feasible" to endow women with the right to retire at the same age as men if they are entitled to make their own choices.
Nonetheless, Yang, who was on the drafting team for the 1992 Law on the Protection of Women's Rights and Interests, draws attention to the so-called "absolute equal treatment to man and woman," saying "the unequal social status between men and women over the years cannot be eliminated overnight. Sometimes, women need to be given special protection before achieving equality."
"This is not discrimination. On the contrary, a blind cry for equality without reference to social conditions would add difficulty to the realization of women's rights," he notes.
However reasonable the argument sounds, Xia Yinlan observes: "Any revision of law needs to go through certain procedures and takes time."
Early retirement: pros and cons
'I was forced to retire at an age when I could have done better than ever
before. My children had grown up and had their own careers, which rid me of
family commitments. I'm still in good
'Early retirement means less income and a waste of
'Women become losers in the on-going government restructuring, for they are
normally excluded from consideration for further promotion at county-level
governments when they reach
'If the government allows women to work for another five or 10 years, it's
like adding frost to snow for current
'If job vacancies are needed for the young, then both men and women can
retire before 60. It's unfair to have just one gender make the
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