Women at mercy of employers

GENDER DISCRIMINATION: While two recent incidents have revealed how little support is available in society for victims of sexual harassment, a bill providing for concrete measures remains pending in the legislature after 10 years

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Jan 24, 2000 - Page 2

Two sexual harassment cases have made national headlines recently and rekindled public concern and debate about women's rights in the workplace.

On Jan. 18 a female nurse, surnamed Yang, at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital (長庚醫院) filed a civil suit for violation of personal dignity against anesthesiologist Shen Chin-hua (沈青華). Yang said her action was prompted by dissatisfaction over the way her employer handled the case.

Even though Shen later resigned under media pressure, the hospital reportedly had asked Yang to make an out-of-court settle-ment. The hostile working environment that she encountered after the incident forced her to request a transfer to Kaohsiung.

Yang also filed an employment discrimination complaint with the local government's Employment Discrimination Review Committee (就業歧視評議委員會), making a record claim for NT$1 million in compensation, even though this is unlikely to be granted.

There are currently no laws in Taiwan regarding punishment for sexual harassment in the workplace. The only effective regulations against sexual harassment are included in the Law on Gender Equality in the Workplace bill (兩性工作平等法) which has been pending in the legislature since it was first introduced some 10 years ago.

The bill proposes that companies should set up guidelines and committees to take charge of sexual harassment complaints.

In another incident, a 20-year-old student at the National Taipei University of Technology (國立台北科技大學) went public on May 26, 1999, with an accusation of sexual harassment after meeting with indifference by officials at both her university and the education ministry.

She claimed that the university had tried to shelve the investigation and had sought to persuade her to give up the fight, and that the ministry had decided not to release its own report on investigations into the allegation.

Even though the Control Yuan demanded on Jan. 12 that the university and the ministry punish the officials concerned for misconduct, the student said it is hard for those who had never experienced such fear and despair to understand what she has gone through.

Academic institutions are currently required by the education ministry to form a gender equality education committee on campus to handle charges of sexual harassment. Even though the ministry made the announcement in March 1997, procedural guidelines were not handed down until March 1999. In addition, academic institutions are not subject to any form of disciplinary measures if they fail to comply with the orders.

Courage and compassion

While sexual harassment has always been a problem for women, only in the past two decades have women come forward in large numbers to demand remedies and institutional changes. But even today, only a small number of feminist litigators have won acknowledgement that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.

According to Peng Yen-wen (彭渰雯), secretary-general of the Awakening Foundation (婦女新知基金會) in Taipei, there have been only two sexual harassment lawsuits that have successfully made it through the courts.

A female court staffer was granted NT$200,000 in compensation in 1998, and a travel agency employee was awarded NT$100,000 in compensation the same year.

Although more women have come forward with complaints, many are still reluctant to reveal their identities. It is almost as if they feel they are the party at fault.

"This has a lot to do with media overexposure," says Lai Yu-mei (賴友梅), director of research and development at the foundation. "To avoid unnecessary harassment and to preserve privacy, victims often have to disguise themselves. We should have more compassion and respect for those women who have the courage to come out."

how to define

sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is rude, demeaning and unwelcome expressions or behavior, says Frank Huang (黃富源), a criminologist and professor at the Central Police University (中央警察大學). It is usually ultimately about the abuse of power.

The most recognized forms of sexual harassment, Huang says, include direct sexual advances or propositions -- including higher-ranked employees asking for sexual favors; creating a hostile workplace environment for women by using sexist jokes, remarks, or pinning up sexually explicit or pornographic photos; and intimidating or excluding women employees in such a way as to jeopardize their employment status.

"The proposed bill which is still awaiting passage by the legislature, however, is in itself incomplete as it covers only the direct forms of sexual harassment and hostility in the workplace," Huang says.

According to a survey conducted in 1999 by the Taipei Association of Wage-Earners (台北上班族協會), about 48 percent of women questioned have experienced sexual harassment.

A 1995 study conducted by Kaohsiung Medical College (高雄醫學院) indicated that 43 percent of nurses had experienced sexual harassment, with 53 percent of the offenders being doctors and 27 percent being patients.

Other studies have also found that harassment is more commonly found in male-dominated workplaces where the majority of women earn low wages and the management is predominantly male.

However, sexual harassment does not happen only to women.

"It can happen to anyone," Huang says. "What it means is behavior or expressions, whether directed at a man or woman, which are recognized by contemporary, normal standards as unwelcome."

Prevention measures and legal remedies

Since current laws do not hold employers responsible for protecting employees from harassment by supervisors, coworkers or non-employees, victims are forced to take the initiative in any action against sexual harassment.

"Victims should bear in mind that tolerance does not make things better and hesitation to seek help only makes things worse," Huang says. "If the harassment is not too severe or violent, directly confronting the harasser may be useful. Otherwise, witnesses or victims are encouraged to report the behavior immediately because privacy only protects harassers, but visibility undermines them."

Before a claim is filed, either with the employer or the union, Huang says, it is necessary to have full documentation of the incident because this can be used as evidence in a complaint or in court.

If the complaint is filed with an outside agency, it is advisable to consult an attorney or women's interest groups, Huang says.

Currently, if a case is judged as employment discrimination by the local government's Employment Discrimination Review Committee, the employer can be fined up to NT$30,000.

The civil lawsuit awards the victim of sexual harassment compensations ranging from NT$100,000 to NT$400,000.

If the harassment crosses over into the criminal realm such as sexual assault or rape, the victim should report it to the police.