By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 13, 2007
WUJIANG, China -- Liao, a 28-year-old engineer, worked at a large electronics company in this coastal province town, two hours west of Shanghai. He helped decide where to place large production machines on the factory floor, and how many workers were needed on which assembly lines. Last year, he won an award for good performance.
But it wasn't enough to save his job. In December, after a compulsory company physical revealed he was a carrier of the hepatitis B virus, Liao was told he was unfit for the job. He said a human resources manager told him: "You're a hepatitis B carrier. You're not fit for collective life, for working in a factory with colleagues."
Liao, who declined to give his full name for fear of being rejected by other potential employers, was astonished. "I thought it was impossible. . . . I didn't think I would lose my job," he said.
In China, however, discrimination against people who carry the hepatitis B virus is not only possible but widespread. Even though at least 10 percent of the Chinese population carries the virus, which can attack the liver and cause lifelong infection, cirrhosis or liver cancer, there is a failure among many to understand that it cannot spread through casual contact.
Experts say the barriers faced by people with the virus fit into a larger context of job discrimination in China, where labor laws are not enforced or are contradictory. Institutions such as universities and the Foreign Ministry are said to discriminate against applicants based on height -- they prefer taller candidates -- while private employers routinely push middle-age women to retire early in favor of younger, cheaper employees, for example.
A 13-year-old labor law prohibits discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, race, sex or religious beliefs, but the regulation is too vague to be of use, experts say. In a survey of more than 3,000 people in 10 cities, results of which were published last month by the Beijing Morning Post, 85 percent of respondents said they believed there was discrimination in the workplace.
In the case of hepatitis B, experts say, discrimination is on the increase, partly because the dangers of the virus have been exaggerated by medical testing companies touting services and advertisers pushing fake cures. Such ploys gain attention in China, where 120 million carry the hepatitis B virus.
The virus is transmitted in body fluids, primarily blood and semen, but occasionally saliva as well. About 90 percent of people infected at birth, and about 10 percent infected later, become carriers, able to infect others for years. Many Chinese were infected by needles that were reused during mass vaccination programs for tuberculosis, tetanus and encephalitis from the 1970s to the 1990s.
Although many carriers have no symptoms, at least one-quarter will ultimately suffer some complication from the infection.
"It's not a lack of knowledge; it's knowing the wrong things," Lu Jun, the moderator of an online forum for the rights of hepatitis B carriers, said of common misunderstandings related the virus. "Advertisers want people to know the wrong things about the disease, so they can drum up more business."
Discrimination also extends to academia. University students who carry the virus often say they are forced to live in segregated dormitories. Last fall, 19 new students who were carriers were expelled by state-run schools in Urumqi, the capital of western Xinjiang province. Several sued the city, which then banned the student-led group that publicized the case.
In 2005, China lifted a ban that prohibited hepatitis B carriers from becoming civil servants, but the government still bars them from the food industry and is considering barring them from working in beauty parlors, public bathrooms and hotels, experts said.
"If the government turns these people down, the public will turn against them, too. Since the law already discriminates, nobody will violate the law to hire these people," Lu said.
In Wujiang, Lu said, 22 employees were fired from companies or divisions under Cal-Comp Electronics, which is based in Thailand and which produces products for Hewlett-Packard, among other companies.
After Liao was given the bad news by his supervisor, he said he immediately went to a hospital for a second round of tests. A doctor confirmed that Liao was a carrier but told him that his liver and DNA were both normal and that his condition ought not to affect his job.
"He said the biggest difference between carriers and the sick is whether your liver is normal, and since mine is normal it will not affect my work," Liao said. "He advised me to be tested every three to six months and told me not to share a toothbrush or a razor with others."
He added, "I thought if I show this to the company, they will not ask me to leave."
He brought the results to the human resources manager, and she passed them to the company doctor. Later, the doctor told Liao, "Personally, I don't think this will affect your job, but I'm not the one who makes the decision."
The day after that conversation, Liao said, an e-mail from the doctors, copied to the head of human resources, said the company would rely on the result of its own blood test, which Liao has never seen. He was offered $996 -- three months' salary -- and asked to fill out a form that said he was "unfit for the position."
The company denies it has discriminated against Liao or any of the other employees who contend they were fired, insisting they left voluntarily or were given an option to rest at home for three months and return after they recovered.
In people acutely infected with hepatitis B, the virus is usually cleared in that amount of time. However, among those who become chronic carriers, no amount of recuperation will rid them of the virus.
"China's law says that laborers have equal rights of jobs, and our company has already fully considered the equal opportunities of employees. We didn't discriminate against them," said Wu Qunsheng, vice manager of the company.
"We need to take into consideration the health of the 6,000 employees in the company, and we already offered well-meaning suggestions to them. We ask them to go rest at home, and if they recover, they can come back," Wu said. "Our explanation at that time was that among our 6,000 employees, some are infectious, so they need to rest at home, and we can keep their positions for them. But some were not willing to take our suggestion -- it was their idea to leave."
Wu said they found 1,268 employees who had not yet received the hepatitis B antibody, and immediately asked the local epidemic prevention clinic to vaccinate them.
Asked how the dismissed employees could be expected to return to work, Wu said, "As long as they can prove that they are not infectious." Asked how a rest period would be helpful if carriers cannot "recover" in three months, Wu replied, "At that time, we didn't consider everything in details."
The Beijing office of HP said in a statement: "HP has been made aware of these allegations against one of our suppliers and is in the process of finding out more information."
A supervisor in charge of quality control at Cal-Comp said she was also dismissed because she carries the hepatitis B virus.
"I asked several times, 'Are you firing me because I'm a carrier?' " said the employee, Li, who spoke on condition that her full name not be used. "The human resources manager didn't admit it directly. First she said, 'I don't think you are suitable for collective life.' I did have a dorm room there, but at most stayed there once a week. The main reason is because of eating together -- there's a public cafeteria, they share the dishes. It's enough to worry the company."
Li said she was offered more money than her colleague Liao because she threatened to take the story to the news media. She received $2,308, which she said was for salary and medical compensation, but what she really wants is her job back.
Forced to leave the company in January, Li now makes $128 a month selling clothes, half of what she used to earn. "The company is not giving us an equal opportunity. They are treating my colleagues and us hepatitis B carriers differently, and that's illegal and unfair," she said. "They are depriving me of an opportunity to develop my skills and to work."
Researcher Li Jie in Wujiang and staff writer David Brown in Washington contributed to this report.