Political Corner: Heralding frontline nurses for working while pregnant hides systemic labour abuses in China

Caring about female workers shouldn’t end with COVID-19

Extreme working conditions and shaved heads among female nurses are being propagandized by Chinese state media. Photo: /Gansu Daily

By: Tianyi Wang, Graduate Student

The World Health Organization declared that coronavirus was a global pandemic as of March 11. In addition to the increasing number of cases of viral infection, many social issues have been exposed during this extraordinary time that are also worthy of attention — particularly those involving the work of frontline women.

As the first country to find and take action to control the novel coronavirus, China has received the most attention from the world on the pandemic issue. Among all the media reports about COVID-19 in China, those that praise the sacrifices of female nurses have been particularly criticized as a form of propaganda. For example, one nurse was reported to be nine months pregnant but still working, another  returned to work just ten days after a miscarriage. These reports, as well as others showing nurses “sacrificing” (cutting) their hair before going to work on the frontlines, take advantage of the labour situation of many women in China, and humiliate medical staff based on their gender. 

Propaganda is nothing new for stories in Chinese media. But what prompted the recent wave of criticism is that the sacrifices of the nurses are being propagandized as heroic efforts. In reality, their labour rights have never been acknowledged. Going to work while pregnant or medically compromised is expected as normal for many women in China.

Reporting the story of a woman who is still working hard just before giving birth is not illustrating a single heroic act that is worthy of praise, but rather is exploiting the everyday economic situation of these women in an unprecedented and stressful situation. Unfortunately, this kind of exploitation is quite common in China. Many young women are discriminated against because of the possibility of future pregnancy. About one-third of Chinese women report having lower wages or being demoted after giving birth. For new mothers it is even harder to find a job if she is fired or leaves her current employment. As a result, most women will still work dangerously hard during their pregnancy, not because they are born with the spirit of “dedication” but because they are afraid to lose their jobs. 

Although it is a good thing to care about the state of female medical workers in China during the fight against this pandemic, it is just as important to continue to practice such concern when our lives return to normal. This applies not only to the context of China; protecting women’s labour rights should be a common goal for the whole world. Women have contributed a lot of important work in the global market. However, this work is often  degraded as unskilled, and many of their basic rights and benefits (such as minimum wages, reasonable rest periods, and even personal safety, etc.), cannot be guaranteed.

As SFU students, no matter where we come from, we all need to be aware of and care for women in the workplace, speaking out for them, and taking action to protect them. Because every woman we love — our friends, our family, or even ourselves — may face similar struggles when going to work. When we help other women in the world, we help everyone.