A NGO Works With Companies to Prevent Sexual Harassment

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This article, which comes out a few days after International Women’s Day (March 8), profiles path-breaking work on sexual harassment by China’s oldest and best-known women’s legal aid NGO: the Zhongze Women’s Legal Aid Center, in collaboration with six Chinese companies. It shows how China, despite its apparent achievements in promoting gender equality, has a long way to go in creating a legal, institutional and cultural environment that is conducive to equal rights for women. For example, issues such as domestic violence and sexual harassment are only now receiving attention in China due to the work of grassroots NGOs like Zhongze and NGO networks that bring together activists, scholars and policymakers, such as the well-known Anti-Domestic Violence Network.

On April 27, 2011, the first NGO-supported mechanism for preventing sexual harassment in the workplace was established in six local companies. A forum to discuss this project was held by the Zhongze Women’s Legal Counseling and Services Center together with academics, NGOs, international organizations, and media ((Editor’s Note: Zhongze is the new name of China’s oldest independent women’s legal aid NGO, formerly known as Beijing University Women’s Legal Aid Center. Founded by Guo Jianmei in 1996, the Center was instructed by Beijing University to discontinue its long-standing affiliation with the university’s law school. As a result, the Center had to register under a new name. It is now registered both as Zhongze, and as Qian Qian Law Firm. Zhongze also houses the Women’s Watch China project.)). In developing a rubric for assessing employer responsibility in certain harassment cases, these six companies have gone beyond the legal requirements, taking the initiative in setting up prevention mechanisms, and becoming pioneers in the world of corporate social responsibility.

Sexual harassment in the workplace: an increasingly prominent issue

According to the 1996 International Crime Victims Survey conducted in over thirty countries, harassment directed at female employees is the most prevalent form of sexual harassment in the workplace. Nearly eight percent of all reported rape cases and ten percent of unsuccessful rape attempts have occurred in the workplace. One of the main forms of violence and discrimination towards women, sexual harassment in the workplace has become an increasingly prominent problem facing Chinese society today.

In 2009, Zhongze conducted a survey across Beijing, Guangzhou, Jiangsu, and Hebei with nine different participating companies and a sample of 2000 workers. They found that 23.9% of those surveyed had witnessed or heard of a sexual harassment case within their office, 19.8% said they had personally been victims of sexual harassment, and 5.3% admitted to having sexually harassed a coworker.

In the past few years, Zhongze has spearheaded the movement against workplace sexual harassment, working hard to protect the rights of women, while at the same time pushing for new legislation that would help to prevent future harassment cases. After new amendments to the “Law of the People’s Republic of China on the Protection of Women’s Rights” (妇女权益保障法, hereafter Women’s Rights Law) were made in December 2005, highlighted by the addition of a clause outright forbidding sexual harassment, women’s rights in China appeared to have taken a turn for the better.

However, according to scholars of gender equality, the revised “Women’s Rights Law” still contains obvious flaws: it lacks a clear definition of sexual harassment, and fails to provide both a national-level employer-responsibility system, and fixed guidelines for punitive action in sexual harassment cases. Experts also claim that local governments’ implementation of the law is inconsistent.

“Sichuan province’s [implementation measure] has ruled that responsibility lies with the employer, based on the precedent set by two cases in Jintang County,” says Zhongze’s director Li Ying. Zhongze is in great need of support from this kind of pioneering judicial work at the local level, but the strategy adopted in Sichuan remains one of the few of its kind.

The secretary-general of Zhongze Women’s Watch (众泽妇女观察), Lin Lixia, has stated that in spite of these developments, many courts will not hear a case based on sexual harassment for two reasons: first and foremost, the “Women’s Rights Law” is difficult to carry out because it lacks clearly defined punitive measures for handling harassment cases; secondly, the People’s Supreme Court released a newly revised “Requirements for civil cases” which still states that sexual harassment in and of itself is not enough to constitute a case. As proponents of women’s rights, NGOs like Zhongze feel that judicial channels are ineffective, and that waiting for the law to be perfected is a painfully slow process.

In March of 2009, the story of a young woman named Annie (a pseudonym), who sued her Japanese boss Hiroaki Yokoyama after he violated her on a trip to Guangzhou, took the country by storm. However, despite the public support for Annie’s case, Hiroaki was only fined a paltry 3000 RMB. Due to the ambiguity of the law, the Japanese company was absolved of any responsibility in the case. Before filing her complaint, Annie had been sexually harassed by her boss for months. When she finally reported his actions to the company, she was fired immediately. Annie’s “winning” case is an appalling example of the flawed legislation surrounding sexual harassment.

Zhongze’s Li Ying stated that sexual harassment in the workplace is taking place constantly, and that the situation is getting worse. However, victims rarely win cases in court, and many of them lose their job in addition to the case. These violations of the victim’s physical rights and dignity also constitute a violation of their right to labor and development.

Examples from abroad

In order to protect the dignity of employees, equal employment opportunity, and a peaceful workplace, sexual harassment prevention in the workplace is clearly needed. According to research on workplace harassment in Asian countries conducted by Zhongze’s Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Team (职场性骚扰课题组), Japan initiated a law in 1986 to ensure gender equality in the workplace. This law was revised in 1999 and again in 2007. The Philippines stepped up to plate in 1995 with their first law against sexual harassment, and Taiwan came out with a similar law in 2005. Zhongze hopes that research on these related laws in other countries will lead to similar legislation in China.

Overseas, several major companies have already established employer responsibility as their policy and institutionalized its role in their corporate culture. One example is General Electric (GE), which lists sexual harassment prevention as one of their “Fourteen Integrity Policies”. Their zero-tolerance approach has led to the rule becoming a deeply internalized aspect of its policy. GE’s policies against sexual harassment are clear and detailed, with well-developed response mechanisms and reporting channels. The legal and human resources departments have also teamed up to launch training on the policy which covers all employees, clearly drawing the line for different responsibilities among the leadership and staff. The company training presents employees with a variety of hypothetical scenarios to assess. The clearly-defined guidelines for action and policy implementation, along with the realism of the training scenarios, has made GE a leader in the corporate fight against workplace harassment. In addition, GE still encourages individuals to file complaints whenever appropriate.

According to GE Healthcare’s chief legal advisor Zhu Xianglian (朱湘莲), the law is the bare minimum, and corporations should work to go above and beyond these requirements in improving the workplace environment. In taking a stand against workplace sexual harassment, GE has reaped tangible benefits; their efforts in the prevention of sexual harassment has helped the corporation boost its reputation while also maintaining its efficiency.

Since 2006, Zhongze has been holding corporate seminars, where they always invite GE to share their experiences, providing local corporations with a model to emulate. To date, six local companies have adopted similar strategies to GE, and have benefited greatly as a result.

Zeroing in on Corporate Advocacy

On the international stage, former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan started a global initiative that urged corporations to adopt anti-sexual harassment policies, and spurred advocacy for corporate social responsibility. By fulfilling international conventions and legal obligations, corporations are respecting the human rights of employees, contributing to the public welfare, and encouraging sustainable development. Annan’s law has already become a method for controlling risk and loss, which is a fountainhead for corporate cohesion.

Zhongze’s research shows that in recent years various countries and regions have formulated specialized laws against sexual harassment in the workplace, with the rules being different in each corporation; additionally, governments, and NGOs have released a series of proposals to prevent sexual harassment. Sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the largest barriers to gender equity, and its eradication would be a large step towards that goal.

Zhongze recently launched its Corporate Mechanisms to Prevent Workplace Sexual Harassment Project, with the ultimate goal of pushing for anti-sexual harassment legislation. The event has continually garnered support from the Ford Foundation, the International Labor Organization, and the UN Gender Task Force.

Beijing Aesthetic (北京唯美度) is one company which worked hand-in-hand with Zhongze to face the problem of sexual harassment. Before writing any rules about sexual harassment in their corporate handbook, both organizations conducted research on relevant laws in place. In addition to the mechanism for filing complaints, courts mandate that HR managers are to be held responsible for handling cases, and various department heads report issues to the leadership. When training new employees, HR’s leadership stresses sexual harassment prevention as one of the most important aspects of training, juxtaposed against training for their normal work responsibilities. An international chain of cosmetic and beauty stores, Beijing Aesthetic has 3000 franchises in China. Sexual harassment prevention mechanisms, if effectively carried out, will act as a firewall protecting its female employees.

While Zhongze is currently pushing for more anti-sexual harassment legislation, they’re also pushing corporations to go beyond ad hoc policies. In a sector lacking strong laws, selected companies are taking the lead in preventing sexual harassment, furthering corporate social responsibility with great courage and insight.

Zhongze Women’s Watch’s Lin Lixia commented: “We think the program is very effective, and by promoting six companies to implement changes, they’re providing a foundation for new laws in a situation where the current laws are insufficient.”

Activating Mechanisms To Prevent Sexual Harassment

“Just because there are no complaints doesn’t mean that there is no sexual harassment.” The project manager of the China and Mongolia office of the International Labor Organization, Zhang Hongman, raised this point. In the April 2011 forum, one representative present mentioned that although new practices have been put into writing, many of them have yet to be put into practice. Upon hearing this, Professor Rong Weiyi, an expert on gender at China’s Public Security University, immediately brought up the example of women’s shelters: “In order to combat domestic violence, a lot of localities have opened up battered women’s shelters, but the shelters are empty. Very few women actually use them.” Rong Weiyi stresses the importance of the complaint system, as well as maintaining a system for follow up and evaluation. Since these rules for filing a complaint haven’t been in place very long, the jury is still out on their effectiveness. Because of this, Lin Lixia and Zhongze have emphasized they plan to monitor these pilot companies and follow up on their progress.

In the future, Zhongze hopes to work with more major corporations around the world, as well as with trade associations, enterprise federations, and employer federations, in order to expand their influence. In addition, Zhongze will closely monitor sexual harassment prevention training. “This is perhaps the most important aspect of preventing sexual harassment,” Lin Lixia said.

As an NGO that advocates on behalf of gender equality and the protection of women’s rights, Zhongze is beginning to see results after years of work. Guo Jianmei, director of Zhongze, stated that aside from needing to come up with strategies, the fight against workplace sexual harassment depends on how much space society is willing to give to NGOs. Despite much high-sounding speech, the value of NGOs has been marginalized, and Zhongze itself is facing the challenge of finding space and resources, while trying to come up with effective strategies to fight inequality.

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