What Is the Significance of China’s #MeToo Movement?

Kevin Lin

“Loudly telling dirty jokes, ridiculing female colleagues about their looks and figures, using the excuse of ‘giving direction’ to make unnecessary body contact in factory workshops, this kind of ‘sexual harassment culture’ is prevalent.” As the #MeToo movement took hold in China, a Foxconn worker described her experience for the feminist website Jianjiaobuluo (尖椒部落). “If a sexually harassed woman worker protests, she is likely to be accused of being ‘too sensitive’ and ‘unable to take a joke.’”

Sexual harassment is a labor rights issue because it so often occurs in the workplace. While journalists were among the first to popularize the #MeToo movement, the Foxconn worker’s story is a reminder that women in blue-collar jobs also regularly experience sexual harassment. A 2013 survey by an organization for female workers, Xiangyanghua (向阳花), showed that an astonishing 70 percent of the 134 female factory worker respondents experienced sexual harassment. And, women in these jobs, due to their more marginalized social status, may have fewer avenues to fight back than professional women.

So what can be done to combat sexual harassment in the workplace? The Foxconn worker’s article makes several concrete proposals, such as breaking the taboo of discussing sexual harassment, providing anti-harassment trainings, and establishing grievance procedures to investigate complaints. These necessary measures on their own do not guarantee protection, at least not without employees actively demanding accountability. Mobilization in the public sphere as well as the workplace remains essential to drive social change.

Such efforts should be supported by stronger legal mechanisms. Although China has had “Special Rules on the Labor Protection of Female Employees” in place since 2012 to prevent sexual harassment, workers rarely see its enforcement. The lack of an explicit provision in the labor laws, or in labor contracts (if workers even have one at all), means women lack even minimal legal protection. There is a call at the global level for the International Labour Organization (ILO) to adopt a convention concerning gender-based violence in the workplace, which countries would then be asked to adopt. China should use this proposal as a guidepost for advancing its own national laws and policies.

This moment also presents an interesting opportunity for the feminist and labor movements to connect and share strategies. Civil society organizations in both movements wrestle with the interplay of gender and work. Further, both have struggled to keep their operations going in light of pressure from authorities. The female worker labor group that conducted the aforementioned survey, Xiangyanghua, was forced to close down in 2015, allegedly because it assisted workers in strikes. The labor movement might benefit from learning more about the use of strategic public and media activities and policy advocacy; the feminist movement may draw lessons on labor mobilizing and giving voice to not only professional but also factory and retail workers. Such partnerships, while recognizing differences, could be a powerful force in pushing for some of the legal, policy, and workplace reforms necessary to combat sexual harassment.

For the full conversation, see the original piece on ChinaFile.