"This case is going to show that sexual harassment in the workplace is bad for the [company's] bottom line."That was how Paul Igasaki, the vice chairman of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), described a class action lawsuit that the U.S. government filed in federal court April 9 against a U.S. subsidiary of Mitsubishi Motors Corp. It may become the largest sexual harassment case in the nation's history, with monetary damages potentially reaching a total of $150 million.
In a pattern of abuse going back to at least 1990, women at Mitsubishi's plant in Normal, Ill., Igasaki said, were called "sluts, whores, and bitches, and other names which I cannot repeat." They had to endure "groping, grabbing, and touching," and they found their names affixed to workplace drawings of genitals, breasts, and various sex acts, according to the EEOC's findings. Some women, it was also charged, were pressured into sexual relations as a condition of employment.
"This case should have a significant impact beyond the parties, and should send the strong message that sexual harassment in the workplace, whether in office suites or on the assembly line floor, will not be tolerated, especially on the outrageous scale that we see here," Igasaki said.A Mitsubishi spokesperson rejected the charges. "Discrimination of any kind will never, and has never, been tolerated at this plant," Gary Shultz, a company vice president, said.
The lawsuit comes at a time when the employment commission's very existence is being challenged by some in the U.S. Congress. This latest initiative against sexual harassment provides ammunition that both supporters and opponents of the agency will try to use to buttress their positions. Hopefully, the controversy will throw some light not just on the domestic but also on the global dimensions of the harassment problem.
It is thanks to federal legislation, the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, under which the EEOC gets its authority, that employers in the United States are now, as never before, sensitized to their legal and moral obligation to combat sexual harassment. But it is important to remember that the operations of Mitsubishi (or Motorola or IBM or Boeing or Gap) do not encounter similar legal constraints in Japan or China or Singapore or Bangladesh. Sexual harassment lawsuits impose a potential "bottom line" cost on businesses in the United States that they do not face in their operations in Asia and elsewhere abroad.
Does U.S. Responsibility End at U.S. Border? It Shouldn't
Some critics claim, partly because of their concern about competitive pressures, that the EEOC is imposing an unfair burden on employers in the United States. It is ridiculous, however, to argue, as many do, that the United States must, for competitive reasons, lower its standards to those of other countries. Yet even many people who accept the need for decent standards in the United States are blind to the obligation that the huge U.S. involvement in the global marketplace imposes on U.S. international policies, governmental or corporate.
International commerce today, when it comes to the rights of working men and women, is still at a primitive stage: lawless and amoral. Almost anything goes. The rationale is that world trade, unfettered by any rules on worker rights, automatically leads to a better life for the working women and men whose products we buy and stock in our homes, garages, stores, offices, and vacation sites.
When it comes to trade across state boundaries within the United States, most Americans these days reject such thinking as out of touch with modern reality. Yet American officials accept and diligently defend that rationale for trade across national boundaries, even glorifying it as "free trade." Sooner or later, this policy will be seen as morally reprehensible. Meanwhile, it is being perpetuated and promoted in the offices of multinational corporations, at meetings of international agencies such as the World Trade Organization, and in other forums where officials have the leverage (and the responsibility) to determine policy in an equitable manner.
What is the moral difference between "groping, grabbing, and touching" women making cars for us in Normal, Ill., and doing that (and worse) to women making toys and dolls for us in Shenzhen, China?
In testimony before a U.S. congressional committee in 1991, Fang Lizhi, world famous astrophysicist and Nobel laureate, presented his views on U.S. foreign policy at a time when China's qualifications for "Most Favored Nation" trade benefits were even more at issue than now. Without explicitly taking sides on MFN policy, Fang urged that U.S. policy-makers "base themselves on consistent principles and not on double standards."
One falsehood, he said, was that the human rights standard for China must be different from those for other countries. "To be frank," he said, "this standard is based on racial prejudice." He did not say that those who hold and apply the standard are prejudiced against China's people, but the implication was there, especially when read in the context of his other remarks.