International Employees’ #MeToo Push May Find Strength in New York State Human Rights Act

Portrait of young Asian woman in a busy modern workplace

Not every country’s laws or government take sexual harassment as seriously as in the U.S. But for international employees making a #MeToo push against their employers, a business trip to New York could give them a chance to find strength in the New York State Human Rights Act.

In this article I will discuss how employees of international companies may be able to use New York State’s Human Rights Act to protect themselves and push for change in their companies. I will talk about the limits of the New York State Human Rights Act, and how recent expansions could cover international employees who travel to the state for work.

#MeToo Movement Gains Momentum in China

The #MeToo movement is usually thought of as a Western idea. The hashtag was coined in 2006 by Tanara Burke, an African American activist seeking to empower black women and girls to speak up about sexual assault and violence. Then a decade later, it became a movement after celebrities like Alyssa Milano used the hashtag to expose sexual harassment in the entertainment industry.

However, what started in Hollywood has now spread worldwide. #MeToo movements have arisen in Europe, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Indonesia, Russia, and even China. In Beijing, over a dozen Chinese women came forward in July 2018. They signed open letters posted on the Chinese social media site Weibo, alleging that they were the victims of sexual harassment and assault by Chinese journalists, intellectuals, and charity leaders.

Among them was Zhou Xiaoxuan, a 25-year-old screenwriter. She wrote an essay talking about her experience in the dressing room of famous Chinese anchorman Zhu Jun. She alleged that she was serving as an intern at China Central Television in the summer of 2014 when she was asked to take fruit to Mr. Zhu’s dressing room. When the other intern with her left the room, Ms. Zhou says Mr. Zhu grabbed her hand, forcibly kissed her, and groped her. She was able to escape when someone came to the door. Mr. Zhu has denied the allegations and each side has sued the other in Chinese court.

International Laws Don’t Always Protect Sexual Harassment Victims

Ms. Zhou went to the police right away with her complaints. But she says the officers told her to drop her complaint because “Mr. Zhu was a force for good in society.” They even threatened Ms. Zhou’s public-sector jobs. Zhou says this experience is not uncommon. Sometimes women wait in line at police stations for days without being able to press charges. Women in China also face laws that do not clearly define rape or harassment and cultural assumptions that blame women for sexual abuse. All of this can make it difficult for international employees to get relief from sexual harassment.

New York State Human Rights Act Provides Hope to International Employees

While international employees may have trouble finding relief at home, a recent change to the New York State Human Rights Act could give them a chance to defend themselves if their work brings them to the state. As of April 12, 2018, the New York State Human Rights Act was expanded to cover anyone who provides services in a workplace. This can include contractors, vendors, consultants, and independent contractors.

Read More: Sexual Harassment of Independent Contractors in the Workplace

The New York State Human Rights Act also applies to every employer in New York State, no matter how many employees are located there. Together, these two provisions may provide hope to international employees sent to New York on business. While their home jurisdiction may not make it easy to prevent sexual harassment, the New York Division of Human Rights may be able to help if the international employee is:

  • On temporary assignment to the New York office of an international business
  • Sent as a consultant or contractor to work with a domestic business partner
  • Attending a New-York based business conference or event

Whether the law will apply will still depend on what happened, where it happened, and the international employer’s relationship to the state. However, with a broader definition of protected employees, the New York State Human Rights Act could be used to embrace international workers who can’t find help at home.

At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced gender discrimination and sexual harassment attorneys know that New York companies do work on a global scale. We know how to use the New York State Human Rights Act to protect international employees and traveling professionals. Contact us to schedule a consultation at our office in New York City, or over the phone.

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