By  on December 30, 2013

BEIJING — Female factory workers in Guangzhou’s industrial zone — the heartland of manufacturing in China — face widespread sexual harassment at work that ranges from being fired for getting pregnant to facing pressure from bosses for sex, according to a newly released survey.

The study, conducted by the Chinese labor group the Sunflower Women Workers Center, found that up to 70 percent of female factory workers surveyed had been sexually harassed in some fashion. The analysis included in-depth interviews with 134 female factory employees in Guangzhou, which has long been the center of China’s manufacturing output. The survey did not distinguish in which particular manufacturing industries the women worked, but did say they were mostly women who work on factory lines, not managers. Guangzhou is part of China’s largest concentration of mass production of textiles, garments, shoes and accessories.

The study was translated into English and released by China Labour Bulletin, a labor rights group based in Hong Kong.

It found that 70 percent of the women reported inappropriate comments, lewd jokes or catcalls at work. Thirty-two percent said they had been touched inappropriately, 25 percent got obscene phone calls and nearly one-third said male coworkers had shown them sexually inappropriate photos. Whistling, shouts, lewd jokes and staring were the most common complaints, but several women reported much more serious harassment as routine, indicating a widespread, systemic problem that is rarely corrected or addressed in China’s factories.

Labor groups have reported before that sexual harassment is a major concern for young women in factories, where they most often both work and live (typically in separate quarters from their male colleagues). Though Chinese law is written to protect victims of sexual harassment at work, successful cases are rare. The survey, labor groups said, indicates that many women working in factories feel they have no recourse but to take the abuse. In many sectors, particularly the textile and garment manufacturing industry, women staff a higher percentage of factory line positions than men, and are far less represented in management.

Many of the women felt they had no option but to stay on the job, often suffering the harassment in silence. Of the respondents, 43 percent did not report their cases, while 47 percent said they had tried to take action against the harassment. In the end, 15 percent of the women polled left their jobs because of sexual harassment, finding no other solution to the problem.

Among the specific comments, several women said they felt powerless and believed neither factory bosses nor police would act to end the harassment.

“More than two-thirds of interviewees said they were disgusted by and detested their harasser,” China Labour Bulletin said in its summary. “Some comments included: ‘I want to kill that man and terminate him,’ ‘These sick people are scumbags and psychopaths,’ and ‘I’m so scared. I cannot sleep well and I keep having nightmares. I just want to run away.’”

The situation is likely to remain a problem in China’s factories in the near term, according to Geoffrey Crothall of the China Labour Bulletin.

“I don’t think there will be a quick fix to the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace,” said Crothall. “But at least people in China are beginning to talk about it now, and hopefully, as the seriousness of the issue becomes apparent, employers, the trade union and local government officials will take forceful action to protect the rights of women at work, and male coworkers will begin to act in a more responsible and respectful manner.”

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