|Half Measures in Migrant Women's Health Care|
|Wednesday, 11 November 2009 01:35|
Tags Half Measures in Migrant Women's Health Care - Migrant Women - Health - employment - working environment - health care reform - MRN - Migrant Resource Network - China
China's swift economic development cannot deny its backbone of migrant workers. According to Shi Famao, a Beijing lawyer who has worked in migrant worker rights protection since 2001, with an estimated number of about 200 million, migrant workers constitute a "huge but disadvantaged" group within China's society. Women comprise 30% of migrant workers and are a major source of urban construction. Although they are an important part of the labor force, several factors contribute to female migrant workers' increasing health care problems. Informal and short-term work contracts prevent workers from receiving basic rights such as maternity leave that other workers enjoy. Hazardous working conditions along with a perception low risk among the workers worsen the situation. Most importantly, migrant women are the most vulnerable group of people physically, mentally, and socially. All these factors contribute to increasing health care concerns for women migrant workers.
Causes of health problems among migrant women workers
First, as migrant women workers are engaged in informal, short-term employment, they are excluded from government reforms. According to 'Status of Rural Woman's Interests and Rights Report,' half of female migrant workers have informal employment. Only about 40% of women migrant workers sign the contract within the unit, and the rest do not enjoy the rights of typical workers. 64.5% of female migrant workers have no maternity leave, compared to regular workers who have 90 days of maternity leave, and they are rarely reimbursed for reproductive medicine. Thus, while female workers may receive maternity leave, female migrant workers do not necessarily receive the same benefits.
More importantly, migrant women are exposed to hazardous work environments. The majority of female migrant workers engage in low-tech and labor-intensive industries, in factories that produce clothing, toys, and decorations. Women are physically weaker than men and are more susceptible to contracting occupational diseases. Common diseases caused by poisonous chemicals include aplastic anemia, pneumoconiosis, and leukemia for pregnant women. Moreover, 90 percent of enterprises are either small or medium-sized and provide few safety measures for their staff, leaving workers with little awareness of occupational hazards. Given this combination of hazardous working conditions and few safety measures, female migrant workers are inevitably exposed to increasing health problems.
This situation is exacerbated by the workers' low risk perception and heavy economic responsibility. According to Li Dehong from the China Center for Disease Control, "most migrant workers in cities and workers in rural enterprises were employed in arduous and harmful jobs, but had no medical insurance and little awareness of safety issues, making them a high-risk group of occupational diseases." Since women are generally responsible for looking after family members and earning money quickly within a short period of time, they tend to refuse health care benefits, even when they receive vacations or health care opportunities. In addition, as the money comes out of their own pockets, most female migrant workers cannot afford costly surgeries or expensive medications. Thus, the economic responsibility as a mother and a working parent worsen women's health conditions.
Finally, the vulnerability of migrant women workers compromises their health. Migrant women workers are worse off than their rural counterparts, as they are not included in the legal system. With no legal measures to safeguard their rights, migrant women are prone to sexual abuse or harassment at work. According to China Daily, "marriage, childbearing, children's schooling, retirement, and physical or mental rehabilitation in case of serious industrial injuries or occupational diseases are presumed to be taken care of only in their home communities." According to another statistic, the percentage of migrant women obtaining treatment is lower than that of other women. Since migrant women are both socially mistreated and legally excluded, programs addressing their health care needs seem to be a luxury.
Government's efforts and shortcomings
First, the government set up "three-year health care reforms" in April of this year. Recent reform plans propose to expand the rights of migrant workers, providing benefits especially to vulnerable groups who cannot afford insurance, such as migrant workers and the self-employed. However, according to Xinhua news, the new reform plan, which provides so-called ""five guarantees," only applies to those with local residence registration (hukou). Thus, most health care is still inaccessible to migrant workers, who belong to low-income groups.
Also, most health care provides services for "basic" needs but is not responsible for essential medical expenses incurred in serious surgeries. Thus, the reform plan may improve basic well-being, but it will not necessarily aid those with life-threatening diseases, especially women with breast cancer, HIV, or other sexually transmitted diseases.
The government's health insurance plan also seems to be economically unrealistic, both for employers and employees. For instance, the government demands that the employee and employer each pay a certain amount as an insurance fee, however, companies refuse to pay the because it is an extraneous cost, and migrant workers cannot afford to pay the fee. As a result, the current insurance plan seems unrealistic because it does not consider the economic realities of both parties.
Another problem is that there is currently little education in preventative health care measures available to female migrant workers. As an increasing number of female migrant workers take on jobs in bars, massage parlors, and the sex industry, the Chinese government needs to increase public initiatives educate female workers in preventive measures against sexually-transmitted diseases.
Some grassroots organizations have been set up to address the issue of marginalization of female migrant workers. For instance, The Migrant Women Club works under the larger umbrella of the Cultural Development Center for Rural Women, an organization whose main activities are directed at establishing a sustainable network for Chinese rural women. Aiming to enhance self-protection and management capacity for a growing number of migrant women, this club provides comprehensive tools, ranging from legal aid and emergency funding to psychological consultation.
The Fuping Development Institute also works on issues related to rural women, to provide them with working opportunities as nannies or migrant workers in the cities. In 2007, the Beijing branch of FDI partnered with the Asia Foundation to launch the Social Innovation Fund, awarding loans to migrant workers starting their own businesses. This organization does not directly address the health care concerns of the women workers. Rather, by helping women to succeed economically, they are indirectly increasing the chances of migrant women to receive improved health care.
Taking into account women's vulnerability, The Maple Women's Psychological Counseling Center addresses women's increasing mental health problems, conducting research on women's employment, domestic violence, and sexual harassment. Although it does not directly address physical health care concerns, this kind of organization is deemed essential for dealing with the increased risk of mental health problems among women who have a hard time adjusting to a new environment in the city.
Other grassroots organizations also address the bigger category of women's health care concerns. They include: Gender and Development in China (GAD), China Breast Cancer Foundation, Pink Space Sexuality Research Centre and Network for Combating Domestic Violence, whose objectives are to address general issues of gender inequality and health care for women. These organizations are partially related to, but not especially tailored to, the migrant women worker population. It seems that these kinds of initiatives and policies may be effective to the female population at large, but they are not necessarily targeted toward migrant women workers.
Government efforts to address migrant women's health care need to become more realistic, while the efforts of some grassroots organizations need to address more specifically the concerns of migrant women. Health care reforms, gender reforms, and migrant worker reforms do bring tangible improvements to the general population of women and migrant workers, but future measures need to be tailored to this specific group in order to have a more direct impact.
|Last Updated on Saturday, 28 November 2009 01:41|