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Laid-off women launch a new worker revolution

By John Schauble, The Age, 20 October 2000, 22:57:17

Wang Shengyun lost her job in one of Tianjin's ailing state-owned enterprises a couple of years ago.

Hers was the fate of many of millions of Chinese women: suddenly unemployed relatively late in life after years of service in a factory that had promised life-long security.

The cracking of China's iron rice bowl because of economic reforms has particularly affected female workers. They are usually the first to be retrenched when cuts need to be made in big enterprises struggling to modernise.

In Tianjin, 60 per cent of laid-off workers are female, even though women account for less than 40 per cent of the workforce. Finding new jobs, especially for the unskilled, is virtually impossible.

For Mrs Wang, the gentle click-clack of knitting needles has filled the void left when she was retrenched from her job as an instrument maker. The sound comes from the needles of the other laid-off workers she employs in a new business she and her sister have started.

Her team of 10 knitters, part of her 100-strong workforce, make trimmings for garments, which are sewn on before the final product is sold in a local clothes market. This is a new field for me, she says, beaming not so much for herself but for the women her enterprise has been able to employ at least part-time since May. While their pay is on a piecework basis, it is better than the 300 yuan ($A66) a month they get in welfare payments.

Mrs Wang's business is one of a handful being nurtured by the Tianjin Women's Business Incubator that opened in the northern port city this week. The idea is to provide new business enterprises with accommodation, secretarial, administrative and legal advice for up to three years while a business is being established.

Tenants pay a modest fee according to a means test, with small loans also available. The idea is that businesses should be viable enterprises from the start rather than just receiving handouts.

Other off-site ventures can benefit through the provision of virtual office services such as telephone answering, fax and e-mail.

The business incubator is not a new concept in China, where it has more commonly been applied to high-tech industries. But this is the first charged with promoting general business opportunities for unemployed women.

The project is being funded by the local government, the United Nations Development Program and the Australian Government's aid arm, AusAID, which has provided funding and technical expertise valued at more than $A1 million.

Kerstin Leitner, the UNDP's resident representative in China, said women's unemployment was a very urgent problem in China, contributing to the growing problem of urban poverty. Some women have lived up to seven years in denial of the fact that they had lost their jobs, she said.

If we can gain some experience in the running of this incubator, that will be of great value to all women in China, said local Communist Party committee head Zhang Lichang.

The incubator's management is in the hands of the Tianjin Women's Federation.

Canberra-based business consultant Peter Strong has been the lead adviser to the project. Australia will provide ongoing advice as the project becomes established. Within five years there could be up to 100 independent incubators operating throughout the country, he said.

So far only a dozen low-tech enterprises have started, with ventures ranging from drinking water dispensers to home decoration.