DONGGUAN, CHINA—In response to international criticism of Chinese workplace inequity and labor rights, China's National Labor Committee agreed Monday to establish an unpaid 15-minute break during the regular 18-hour workday, to allow pregnant women to "expel the child from their body, adjust to being a new parent, wash their hands, and return to work."
"During the last moments of childbirth, a female employee's productivity diminishes sharply," said Shanghai toy-factory owner Huang Wei, who noted that even the slightest whimper of pain or sight of a newborn's head as it crowns can distract an entire assembly line from the job at hand. "These women need a few minutes to rest and recuperate before returning to sew eyes onto stuffed animals in an efficient and satisfactory manner."
"Of course, this measure wouldn't need to be taken at all if pregnant workers could schedule their due dates for the annual holiday of May 1," Huang added.
When her contractions are coming at such short intervals that she is physically unable to attach a Barbie head, the female worker must report to the factory's lone bathroom stall, located four flights up from the assembly line. Once there, she is instructed to deliver the child within five minutes, which allows her sufficient time to get hosed down with hot water and mop up the surrounding area so that others do not slip in the afterbirth.
To prevent abuse of privileges, this 15-minute period also incorporates the one weekly bathroom break all workers are allotted.
Initial response among female workers has been positive, with most women preferring the new rule over the old one, which stipulated that the newborn child must remain where it lands on the floor until the woman's shift ends.
"Even though this maternity break means I will lose three of my 12 cents for that hour, it will be worth it just to hold my baby in my arms for a few precious seconds," said pregnant seamstress Yuen Yin, 19, just after her factory's quitting whistle blew at 2:47 a.m.
Despite the new, broadened time allotment, expectant employees are encouraged to speed the birthing process by breaking the amniotic-sac membranes themselves. The expectant mother will be responsible for thoroughly sanitizing every affected area, and will also be discouraged from using factory instruments such as tongs to facilitate the birthing process, unless it is the only means through which she can remove the baby before the allotted 15 minutes elapse. The new mother would then be docked three days' pay to replace the implement.
The Labor Committee also instituted an incentive plan granting a 40-cent bonus to any employee expecting a daughter who opts to use her 15 minutes to receive an abortion in the factory's storage closet.
Songgang shoe-factory owner Xiao Jianqi said he had considered adopting some of Micronesia's more liberal maternity policies, including an additional three minutes off for twins, 35 "personal minutes" for the child's first year, and a towel to wrap the infant in. But he decided that the new regulations were enough, and he did not want to give female workers more reason to agitate.
"If these Chinese employees' work ethic is any indication, I strongly believe these maternity breaks will go quickly and smoothly for the mother and the child, and that once the 15 minutes are up, both of them will return to the assembly line to continue working," Xiao added.