HONG KONG—Chinese people who suffer from, or merely carry, the hepatitis B virus are subjected to growing levels of discrimination and prejudice in the country's job market, with routine blood tests by employers continuing in the face of a government ban.
"The problem of discrimination against hepatitis B carriers in China is still very serious," according to a former health-testing center manager surnamed Ma, who ran employment-related health checks for companies in the Pearl River Delta region for several years.
Ma said that discriminatory attitudes are particularly harsh in southern China's manufacturing belt.
"A lot of people have been to lots of job interviews but never got hired. Their application was fine, they did a good interview, but then they were dropped after the health check."
Ma said that the majority of China's top 500 companies still test potential recruits for hepatitis B, although some of the larger multinationals in China do not.
"Some of the big companies, IBM, for example, won't test for hepatitis B [during recruitment]," he said. "They don't care about such things. But there aren't many like that."
According to a report published by the nongovernment group Yirenping on the status of hepatitis B carriers in the workplace, employers' actions are still based on widespread misunderstandings about the virus, which is only spread through sexual contact, mother-to-baby, or through contaminated blood.
Recent outbreaks of hepititis A, which is a separate viral infection transmitted through poor hygiene, have led to widespread fear of the word "hepatitis," which is linked in people's minds to easy communicability and the need to wash one's hands.
Hepatitis B is endemic in China's population, which includes an estimated 90 million carriers of the virus and 3 million people with an active form of the disease.
Carriers of the virus are still routinely subjected to discriminatory practices, according to experts and health workers.
"Employment is one of the basic rights of human existence," said Beijing-based legal expert Li Fangping. "If you are stripped of your right to employment because of some hidden health factors, then there is very little protection for you in Chinese society."
"You can basically starve to death."
Li Renbing is head of a Beijing-based group which campaigns for the rights of hepatitis patients and carriers, and offers them legal assistance.
"If they're not recruiting them or enrolling them, and they're not being given the right to work, then I would say that's discrimination," Li said.
Those who do find employment risk being fired or forced into early retirement if their status becomes known. Hepatitis B carriers can have normally functioning livers for many years.
Of 60 million confirmed hepatitis B carriers in China, around 30 percent said in a 2009 survey that their education had suffered as a result of their immunological status, while 24 percent said they had lost out on job opportunities as a result of hepatitis B.
China's Prevention of Infectious Diseases Law states that it is unlawful to discriminate against anyone on the grounds of their infection with an illness or virus.
Hao Yang, deputy director of the China Centers for Disease Control and Prevention under the health ministry, said the government has tried to ensure that the law is implemented.
"The health ministry has been stressing the point for a long time that it is opposed to discrimination [against hepatitis B carriers]," Hao said.
Hao said that only a minority of hepatitis B carriers are affected, however.
"The vast majority are still about to attend school and to get jobs," he said. "But we still see some cases of discrimination, and this has had a pernicious influence [on the situation]."
Attitudes hard to change
Social attitudes are proving hard to change, with many employers admitting openly that they would discriminate against those who have hepatitis B.
According to a 2007 survey of employers, around half of those surveyed said they wouldn't recruit a carrier of hepatitis B. And in 2008, respondents at 42 out of 96 foreign-invested companies in China said they wouldn't recruit them, either.
Social commentators said there is still a widespread lack of education about the disease among China's population.
"This goes to show that ordinary people have a lot of fear and prejudice around this type of hepatitis," said Cai Dingjian, a law professor at the China University of Political Science and Law.
"It's a form of collective unconsciousness, and nobody seems to think it's a problem," Cai said. "They don't see it as discrimination."
Discrimination against hepatitis carriers appears to have worsened in recent years, from an outright ban on working in food industries, in beauty and personal services, in teaching, and as cabin attendants in the early 1980s, to refusals for entry into almost any trade or profession today.
The level of discrimination is perpetuated in the media, along with a lack of understanding about the different forms of hepatitis being written into hugely popular soap operas like "A Snail's Home."
"If you don't wash your hands before you eat, watch out for hepatitis," says one character to another, in an apparent reference to the acute hepatitis A infection. "No one will give you a job."
"We have done an awful lot of anti-discrimination work," said the health ministry's Hao Yang. "We have put out a lot of propaganda."
"But the problem of discrimination still exists, although I think we are seeing an overall improvement."
Need for legislation
Beijing-based Yirenping, a hepatitis charity which published a report on discrimination in the workplace in January, said part of the problem lies with the need for an overall legislative framework governing discrimination of all kinds at work.
Under existing Chinese laws, the report said, "employers who have engaged in discriminatory behavior are not required to assume legal liability."
"There is a legal disconnect between anti-discriminatory principles in the Constitution and the laws and administrative regulations of the PRC," it said in an English version of the report translated by the Hong Kong-based China Labor Bulletin.
Yirenping's report said the government is actively seeking ways of eliminating employment discrimination against people with hepatitis B, or HBV.
"However, as long as the public continues to view the HBV-positive community as 'unhealthy,' there is a risk of employers and health-screening centers joining forces and using the test in medical exams for prospective employees," the report said.
Original reporting in Mandarin by An Pei. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.