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March 13, 2007 9:30 pm

Nokia China hit with discrimination suit

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A Chinese job applicant ­on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against Nokia alleging that a local unit of the Finnish telecommunications equipment company refused to employ him because he is a carrier of the Hepatitis B virus.

The highly unusual lawsuit underscores moves by Hepatitis B carriers to use legal channels to challenge what they say is endemic discrimination against the estimated 120m Chinese infected by the virus.

Chinese companies routinely refuse to employ people who carry the Hepatitis B virus, even though it is mainly transmitted at birth, through sexual contact or by contaminated needles.

However, the job applicant, who asked to be identified only by his surname, Li, said he had been surprised when the Nokia unit in China’s southern city of Dongguan cancelled plans to hire him after a company-ordered medical examination.

“I thought that as a big company, Nokia would have a better understanding of this issue,” Mr Li said. “But they still said that because I was a [Hepatitis B] carrier, they had to reject me.”

Mr Li on Tuesday filed a lawsuit at a Dongguan court calling on it to order Nokia to hire him and to pay Rmb500,000 ($64,540, £33,370, €48,830) in compensation for “mental suffering”.

Nokia stressed its global policy did not allow hiring decisions to be affected by whether an applicant was suffering from a chronic disease, such as Hepatitis B, unless the condition would render the employee incapable or would pose “considerable risk” to others.

“We are looking into this case,” said Thomas Jönsson, director of communications for Nokia China. “If a mistake has been committed, we will follow up and take whatever measures are required to correct it.”

Mr Li’s case has emerged at a time when a growing number of Chinese are taking companies and even government departments to court over issues such as discrimination. Such litigants often face laws that are ambiguous, courts that rule inconsistently and patchy enforcement of rulings.

Lu Jun, a health activist who runs a website for Hepatitis B carriers, said Mr Li’s lawsuit appeared to be the first of its kind against a western company. Anti­discrimination lawsuits against local companies were also very rare and often failed, in part because of China’s contradictory legislation on Hepatitis B, Mr Lu said.

Officially, discrimination against Hepatitis B victims is banned under a sweeping but vaguely worded 2004 law and the health ministry says carriers can live, work and study “normally”. However, those infected with the virus are banned by official regulations from working in sectors such as the food industry and are sometimes blacklisted even by government departments.

Last year, a top school in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region expelled 19 children after discovering they were infected with the virus.

A lawsuit brought by parents of the children against local education authorities was abandoned under what people familiar with the situation said was heavy pressure from officials.

Unlike the less serious but more infectious Hepatitis A virus, Hepatitis B carriers pose little risk to co-workers or fellow students.

But fear of the disease, which leaves most carriers unharmed but can cause serious liver damage and death, has been stoked in China by widespread advertising by medicine vendors.

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