THE MINISTRY of Labour has published a national workplace policy on sexual harassment, which employers can access over the internet. The policy is a welcome development, but the Government should tread cautiously when it comes to the question of whether it should eventually have the force of law.
Advocates for social reform might say a policy is not enough, that law should protect workers, including measures making sexual harassment a criminal offence. The prevalence of the problem, as well as the serious psychological damage triggered, suggests the State should impose the highest sanction possible.
However, criminalisation might be counter-productive. It could discourage people from coming forward to make reports. As the Equal Opportunity Commission notes in its 2018 guidelines on workplace sexual harassment, requiring a victim to make a formal report to the police is intimidating and could be regarded as possible “career suicide.” Additionally, criminalisation focuses on penalising individuals as opposed to building a culture of zero-tolerance. Such a culture can only come when employers are on board.
Besides, TT already has a suite of laws and civil procedures in place which effectively target sexual harassment. The Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, while the Equal Opportunity Act regards sexual harassment as a form of unlawful discrimination. Further, the Industrial Court has provided robust case law that defines sexual harassment in a culturally sensitive way while considering the perspective of the victim.
While complaints of sexual harassment lodged with the commission have been negligible over the years, this is likely due to the fact that most sexual harassment goes unreported. According to the National Women’s Health Survey for TT, commissioned by Caribbean DEVTrends and the Inter-American Development Bank, an estimated 84 per cent of sexual harassment experiences are not subject to formal complaints. Which is why, for the moment, the matter might best be addressed on the level of a policy before further legislative interventions are contemplated.
Where the new policy, announced last Friday by Labour Minister Jennifer Baptiste-Primus, surpasses current laws however is in its explicit acknowledgment that the problem is not limited to one gender. Sexual harassment may be male to female, female to male, male to male or female to female.
“Any worker or employer can be a perpetrator or a victim of sexual harassment,” the document notes, removing room for doubt.
The policy also reflects the fact that not all harassment looks the same. When we think of sexual harassment, we may think of the drama of situations like those described by Singing Sandra in her calypso classic Die With My Dignity. But harassment also comes in the form of seemingly harmless picong. What matters is whether the conduct is “unwelcome, unreasonable, and offensive to the recipient.” That’s the test we should all apply to our sweet talk.