Employer let off the hook in Chengdu sexual harassment case

A court in the southwestern city of Chengdu has ordered a well-known civil society figure to formally apologise, within 15 days of its judgment, for sexually harassing one of his junior colleagues in 2015.

In its 11 July judgement, however, the Wuhou District Court rejected the plaintiff’s request for compensation for psychological damages. Neither did the court accept the plaintiff’s key demand that her employer, and not just the individual offender, should be legally liable for the sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

The plaintiff, Liu Li (pseudonym), had complained about the sexual harassment incident in 2015 through existing channels at the social work organization in Chengdu where she was employed but her complaints were largely ignored. Inspired by the growing #MeToo movement in China, Liu Li publicised her story in July 2018, and filed a civil lawsuit in October 2018.

There are provisions in the Law on the Protection of Women’s Rights and Interests (妇女权益保障法) and the Special Provisions on the Protection of Women Workers (女职工劳动保护特别规定), as well as in Sichuan’s provincial implementing regulations for the Law on the Protection of Women’s Interests (四川省实施〈中华人民共和国妇女权益保障法〉办法), that clearly articulate the responsibility of the employer to prevent or deal with sexual harassment in the workplace effectively. The Wuhou district court apparently ignored these stipulations and focused only on the actions of the individual perpetrator.

Liu Li, who had always wanted to be involved in social work and make a positive contribution to society, says she is now so disillusioned with the process that she will not work in the industry again.

However, many have welcomed the judgement as an important first step in the fight against sexual harassment. Previously, it was extremely difficult to even get a case accepted by the courts, let alone assemble the evidence needed to secure a victory.

However, a decision by the Supreme People’s Court in December last year which listed sexual harassment and equal employment rights as grounds for civil lawsuits, opened the door for Liu Li and many other victims of workplace sexual harassment. The number of cases related to sexual harassment and equal employment rights accepted by the courts this year has increased significantly and observers expect several judgements to be issued in the coming months and years. It is hoped that, in many of these cases, the employer as well as the individual offender will be held liable. 

The respondent in the Chengdu case, Liu Meng, meanwhile is reportedly planning to appeal the judgement. Liu Meng won numerous accolades for his work in setting up civil society organizations to help the victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. He is also the Secretary General of the Sichuan Women’s Development Foundation.

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