work from 6 am to 8 pm every day and have hardly any holiday time throughout the year,” said Li Guozhi, a 47-year-old female construction worker in Beijing’s Fengtai district.
Li, from Hubei province, came to Beijing in 2003 with her husband. They both work on a construction site, moving bricks, transporting sand and painting buildings. “I have to work hard every day to support my family. However, the salary is very low, only 20 yuan per day, if you can imagine that.”
She said she doesn’t get overtime pay or other subsidies and the working and living environment is terrible.
“Dust flies about at the construction site. My three children, my husband and I live in a small and shabby house on-site, which is not heated in the winter, and the neighbors can be heard loudly and clearly.
“I am in poor health, but the boss doesn’t allow me to have a vacation. Furthermore, I didn’t sign any contracts with the employers, so the boss often doesn’t pay me on time, and I can’t get social welfare or medical benefits.”
Working on a construction site can be dangerous. And although she and her husband do the same work, she makes less money than he does. “It is unfair,” she said. “This kind of physical work is not suitable for women, but I don’t know what else I can do,” Li sighed, adding that the site has about 18 workers, of which about six are female.
“I’m tired every day, but I carry on so that my husband and I can raise our family.”
Li is one of hundreds of thousands of women working in the construction industry across the country. And more and more are cropping up on construction sites in recent years.
According to a 2013 survey conducted by the Little Bird MutualAid Hotline for Migrant Workers, a grassroots organization based in Beijing, more than 10 percent of construction workers were women.
The survey of 6,451 construction workers from 9 cities, including Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and Zhengzhou, also found that construction workers were older than workers in other industries.
Thirty-two percent of workers in the construction industry were aged 41-50, 27 percent were 31-40 and less than 30 percent were aged 30 and below.
Liu Xiaohong, president of Beijing Yi Zhuan Yi Wa Cultural Development Centre, which aims to improve the living conditions of migrant workers, confirmed that the number of female construction workers is increasing.
“Along with Beijing Normal University, we conducted a joint study in 2011 into the workforce of Beijing’s construction industry. At that time, only 2 percent of construction workers were female, but the number has been growing. Now, the proportion has reached more than 10 percent in Beijing, and it’s up to 20 percent in Sichuan province,” said Liu.
The construction industry is the pillar of the Chinese economy. It is estimated that the number of construction workers will continue to increase by at least 15 million each year.
Liu explained that most female construction workers are middleaged and have difficulties finding other jobs.
“For example, the manufacturing industry prefers to hire young female workers. So older women choose to follow their husbands and take jobs on construction sites,” she said.
At first, the women would take odd jobs at the construction site, such as in security and cleaning. But now more and more female workers are taking the same jobs, which are often high-intensity, as their male counterparts.
“In fact, the room for promotion for these women is small, and management positions are held by men. There is also gender discrimination. They’re not paid the same as men even though they do the same kind of work,” Liu said.
“Male workers can earn 170 yuan for 10 to 11 hours of work placing rebar at a construction site, but women can only earn 150 yuan for the same work.”
Women should also be treated differently when they are pregnant or after they give birth, but the reality is that they aren’t given any special treatment, Liu added.
“Besides, the rate at which female workers sign a labor contract is very low less than 20 percent. In other words, many of these workers’ rights aren’t guaranteed, and their employers may suspend their salary.”
Zhao Wei, a professor at the School of Philosophy and Social Science at Beijing Normal University, said women are not physically built for the high-impact work on construction sites and they should coordinate with their husbands to take on lower impact jobs, such as painting.
She added that the workers’ living quarters were squalid and often didn’t have a bathroom.
“Their living conditions are terrible. These workers can’t bathe in their dormitories,” Zhao said.
She told China Daily that more middle-aged women are following their husbands into construction work in recent years because their children have gone off to college or have started their careers and don’t need their parents’ care as much.
Zhao suggested that female construction workers older than 40 years old consider changing jobs.
“They are not qualified for the work due to their declining physical strength. They should go into business for themselves or look into jobs in housekeeping.”
A female construction worker shows a towel she weaved for her husband.