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2020-04-07 15:05:48

A former Shanghai-based employee of Aldi is suing the German supermarket chain for firing her after she tried to report her supervisor, a foreign national, for repeated sexual harassment.

The plaintiff, who asked to be identified as Julie to protect her privacy, told Sixth Tone that since she joined Aldi’s Shanghai office as an expansion assistant in January 2019, her boss, Aldi China’s director of expansion, had sent her pornographic videos and pictures, photographed her without her consent, and asked her to see him outside of work. She had posted about the alleged misconduct on microblogging platform Weibo in late March.

“When I joined the company, he asked me questions like whether Chinese girls would accept husbands having extramarital affairs, or whether Chinese girls liked to have older boyfriends,” said Julie, who is 12 years younger than her former supervisor. “Then when I would tell him I don’t like older men, just men my own age, he would act like I had offended him.”

Julie said working in such an environment made her extremely uncomfortable, and led to her being diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder at the Shanghai Mental Health Center in June.

According to a chat screenshot Julie posted on Weibo, her boss sent her a nearly two-minute pornographic video at around 11 p.m. one night. Though he later recalled the message, Julie took a screenshot for evidence.

On Sept. 18, Julie reported his inappropriate advances to Aldi’s code compliance officer, Jonathan Ward, who met with her three times in the following week. She said that on Sept. 27, she attended a meeting with a lawyer for Aldi who requested her resignation and offered 20,000 yuan ($2,800) in unspecified compensation. According to Julie, the lawyer also tried to intimidate her by suggesting she might have a hard time finding a job in Shanghai’s “fast-moving consumer goods industry” in the future.

Angry and frightened by this encounter, Julie emailed other Aldi employees detailing her supervisor’s alleged impropriety, including screenshots from their conversations on social app WeChat. The same day she sent the emails, she received a notice from Aldi saying she was being fired.

Julie then filed an arbitration case with the Shanghai Municipal Labor and Social Security Bureau, but her claim was rejected because her reaction had been “too excessive.” According to the arbitration result seen by Sixth Tone, Aldi claimed that Julie had violated company policy by sending pornographic content — screenshots of her supervisor’s messages — to her colleagues.

Zhang Zongfa, a lawyer at Shanghai Baohua Law Firm who is representing Julie, said the decisions by both Aldi and the labor bureau are unjust.

“Sexual harassment cases are often private by nature, and thus it’s difficult for victims to collect evidence,” Zhang told Sixth Tone. “However, my client has collected solid evidence, from saving chat screenshots to reporting the case to the company.”

According to Zhang, Julie’s supervisor violated several of China’s laws and regulations on sexual harassment. The lawyer added that the current draft revision of the country’s civil code — whose formal adoption has been delayed by the COVID-19 outbreak — explicitly mentions companies’ responsibilities in cases of sexual harassment. Zhang said he and Julie are preparing a lawsuit against the man, as well as an appeal of the labor bureau’s de facto ruling in favor of Aldi.

Zhang is especially irked by Aldi’s rationale for firing Julie. “When the supervisor sent that video to my client, Aldi did nothing — but when my client used it to protect her rights, they considered that dissemination of pornography,” the lawyer said. “It’s clearly a double standard.”

In an emailed statement Tuesday, Aldi China told Sixth Tone it was aware of the claims circulating on social media but could not comment, as the case had “entered the legal process.” When asked about whether the supervisor had been fired over Julie’s allegations, Aldi said he “is no longer a member of Aldi’s employees.” It is unclear whether he resigned or was dismissed.

Repeated calls to the supervisor’s mobile number could not be completed, and an inquiry sent to his Aldi email address returned an automated message saying the intended recipient could not be found.

Aldi, an international supermarket chain known for low prices, entered the Chinese market in 2017 and now has five locations in the country. According to Aldi’s Human Rights Policy Statement, the company is committed to upholding the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

Editor: David Paulk.

(Header image: An exterior view of an Aldi supermarket in Shanghai, 2019. VCG)