Mitsubishi's $34m sex bias bill

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SANDRA RUSHING was 21 when she got a job at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal, Illinois. But her tasks on the assembly line soon turned into a nightmare.

While she was at her work station, men would gather round her, touch her breasts and fondle her between her legs. Sometimes they drew pictures of her engaged in sexual activity, put her name on them and and stuck them onto the cars in the assembly line.

One night, four men ordered her to have sex with them and threatened to rape her if she refused.

Yesterday, the American subsidiary of Mitsubishi Motors paid dearly for the regime of sexual harassment it was deemed to have tolerated for years at Normal. In a landmark settlement, the company agreed to pay more than $34m to settle a long-running sexual harassment suit involving hundreds of the company's female workers.

The case, which was brought by the US government's Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of more than 300 women, set a record, both for the number of complainants and the amount agreed.

The amount of money that each of the women will receive will depend on the gravity of her allegations, but could be up to $300,000. The settlement, as a whole, has still to be approved by the judge in the case, but is thought unlikely to be rejected.

The EEOC instituted the lawsuit in April 1996, accusing the company of allowing 300 women employees to be subjected to groping, indecent jokes and lewd behaviour while they were working on the assembly line at the Mitsubishi car plant in Normal.

A number of women had also accused male managers of demanding sexual favours as a condition of addressing other complaints about working conditions and shift patterns.

This is the second sexual harassment suit settled by Mitsubishi in America. Last August, the company agreed undisclosed compensation for 27 women who had brought their own case.

The principle established by both settlements is that the company bears responsibility both for setting the tone of the workplace and for the behaviour of its managers and employees.

There had been persistent allegations of sexual intimidation and harassment at Mitsubishi since 1992. Women workers claimed male workers and supervisors kissed and fondled them, called them "whores", "bitches" and other obscene names, displayed pornographic drawings of the women that were clearly identifiable, and took revenge on women who refused their advances.

One male worker was alleged to have talked frequently of wanting to kill women while they performed oral sex on him. Others passed round photos of women performing sex acts with animals. Two men tied one woman worker's hands and feet to a cart and pushed her around the plant. Another woman had her hair cut off.

The EEOC, in its evidence, said that the managers at the plant, which employs 4,000 people, condoned these practices, sometimes took part in them, or did nothing to stop them. It claimed that sexual harassment at the Normal plant was "repeated, routine, generalised, serious, pervasive and known to be supported by management".

It had been particularly riled by the action of the company, just after the EEOC had lodged its lawsuit on behalf of the US government, in financing buses to take 2,000 workers and managers to Chicago for a demonstration against the EEOC.

Initially, there had appeared to be great reluctance on the part of the US authorities to support a lawsuit, in part because the company was a joint venture and because the top managers were Japanese. This held the risk of a racist overtone at a time when Japanese investment in the US was being encouraged and Japanese work-practices were being widely praised.

Sensing the toughening of the US government attitude in 1996, shortly after the EEOC took up the complaints, Mitsubishi in America launched its own internal review of working practices and engaged a former US Labour Secretary, Lynn Martin, to conduct it. But lawyers for the women complainants said the review would achieve nothing because the women would not trust someone in the pay of management.

After the announcement of this week's settlement, the chairman of the EEOC, Paul Igasaki, warned that the commission would take a similarly hard line with other companies that allowed unacceptable treatment of women employees.

"Make no mistake about it," he said, "the Mitsubishi situation is not unique and no employer should assume that it can't happen in any company. Other employers should take heed. The EEOC will aggressively pursue problems like this."

Although Mitsubishi did not admit any of the allegations contained in the lawsuit, it did not deny them, and the executive vice-president of Mitsubishi Motor Manufacturing of America, Kohei Ikuta, offered an apology to the women involved.