Mitsubishi, the Japanese car giant, faces what could prove to be the most expensive sexual harassment suit in United States history following a decision by a government agency to file charges on behalf of hundreds of women employed at a factory in Normal, Illinois.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said that as many as 700 women had been subjected to systematic sexual abuse over a six- year period. If the commission succeeds in proving the case each of the women could receive up to $300,000 (pounds 200,000) in damages.
The lawsuit says that women at the plant were subjected to a "hostile and abusive work environment": male employees had groped and fondled the breasts, buttocks and genitals of female assembly line workers; and the women had to endure obscene remarks and lewd graffiti on the factory walls. Officials said, without providing details, that in one instance an air hose had been "used" on the genitals of a female worker.
Some of the hundreds of women who had been victimised had resigned to avoid further humiliation, according to the EEOC.
"This case 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," Paul Igasaki, vice-chairman of the EEOC, said.
Another commission official observed that the pattern of abuse at the Mitsubishi plant in Normal could not have flourished "without the knowledge and consent, either explicit or implicit, of the management".
Mitsubishi denied the charges, however. "If we are surprised and horrified at anything," said Gary Shultz, vice-president of Mitsubishi's Normal subsidiary, "it's the manner that this has been brought to the public's attention".
The Chicago Sun-Times reported yesterday that women at the plant held contradictory positions on the allegations. One told the newspaper that it had become routine for women to be "touched" and "called certain names". Another, however, said that supervisors had dealt effectively with complaints of sexual harassment.
Last year Del Laboratories of New York paid out a record $1.85m to settle a sexual harassment suit brought against the company's chief executive. EEOC officials said that if they won the case against Mitsubishi, the car giant would probably end up paying substantially more.Reuse content