By January 14, 2003, the Chinese Internet company where I worked had already begun taking its first steps towards a possible listing on the Hong Kong stock market. But on that same day, I had only begun to take my first steps into the workplace — after two weeks of recovery from a sprained ankle.
And some people, on the other hand, had taken their last steps at work. Such as Ayi Zhong, the fiftysomething woman with a cap of salt-and-pepper hair who cleaned my apartment once a week, and the company offices several times a week.
She told me about it the evening of January 14, when I found her arranging my apartment, as she did every week. “The new office is twice the size of the old place, but they would not increase the salary.” The company only paid her 250 yuan (almost $37) a month, a pittance for her services.
Still, Ayi Zhong wasn’t the only company casualty. Months before, Caroline revealed that most of the young workers in the company had no contracts — which meant they worked, in a sense, under the table. The company did this to avoid paying additional taxes and providing costly benefit packages to employees. “Almost no one here has health insurance,” Caroline explained.
I didn’t understand how a company could get away with it. “But how can they do this?”
Caroline spoke solemnly, as if we were presiding over a funeral for lost HR benefits. “They keep on putting off the contracts. Every time you want to sign it, they suggest you do it another day. And they keep doing it, until the contract is forgotten.”
The exploitation plagued me in those quiet, evening hours alone, as I wondered why the company could give me so much, and give so little to the local Chinese workers.
But, the thing is, the company wasn’t giving me what I thought. In December, Mr. CEO had put off discussing my contract. And he continued to put it off during the week of January 14. My contract would soon, catastrophically, be forgotten.
Have you ever known someone who worked without a contract — or a fair deal — in China? Or has your contract ever been conveniently forgotten?
Memoirs of a Yangxifu in China is the story of love, cultural understanding and eventual marriage between one American woman from the city and one Chinese man from the countryside. To read the full series to date, you can start at Chapter 1, or visit the Memoirs of a Yangxifu archives.