Beyond online movement, eliminating sexual harassment requires tough actions and laws

By Andrea Prince, Labour Lawyer, ILO Viet Nam

Comment | 24 May 2019
In recent years, online movements addressing sexual harassment, especially #metoo, have gone viral globally and in Viet Nam. Such movements have been powerful in putting a spotlight on sexual harassment and been revolutionary because they have made it a hot topic. However, to really eliminate sexual harassment at the workplace, this ‘hot topic’ has to become ‘hot action’ in policy and law, as well as in everyday life.

In Viet Nam, sexual harassment in the workplace is quite prevalent. Although official figures on sexual harassment at the workplace are not readily available in Viet Nam, according to a survey conducted by ILO Viet Nam and Navigos Search in 2015, approximately 17 per cent of the 150 mid-career workers interviewed said that they or someone they knew in the workplace had been asked for “sexual favours by a superior in return for some kind of workplace benefit”.

In the past, people often accepted harassment as the norm, but with the ongoing work of international organizations and flow of online information, awareness on sexual harassment has been increased. Most workers now have a basic understanding that actions they too often experience at work, such as unwanted sexual comments, touching, demanding sexual favours, and stalking, are all sexual harassment and are totally unacceptable.

Formal complaints about sexual harassment remain rare. Victims often feel ashamed due to the personal nature of the topic. Sexual harassment also often involves a power imbalance, where the workplace abuser has the power to punish the victim if they report, by refusing to promote them, sacking them, denying them a bonus or labelling them a trouble maker. Fear of such reprisals at work is a big reason why many victims remain silent. Weak enforcement also means that victims have little motivation to report the case officially.

While working with national and international partners to address decent work principles in the garment sector through the Better Work programme, ILO has come across a number of cases of sexual harassment in Viet Nam. These incidents have generally involved senior colleagues abusing workers at a lower level. In one factory, a worker accused her production supervisor of touching her and making inappropriate comments. In a rare move, she decided to follow up with the Human Resources department and the factory’s trade union. The worker was eventually moved to another section, while the offender remained in his post and unpunished. As a response to such cases, Better Work is committed to supporting factories to turn existing voluntary guidelines into practical policies and real actions, whilst also empowering workers to know their rights and raise their voices.

More generally, the attitude toward victims and perpetrators has started to change and national laws, policies and initiatives by leading employers have started to move in alignment with this. The direction of travel is toward ensuring zero tolerance on sexual harassment at work. In the draft revised Labour Code recently published (in April 2019), we see signs that Viet Nam is joining this push, with a proposal for the definition of sexual harassment to be included for the first time in law. The definition may not yet fully capture all aspects of the problem, but this is only a draft, so there is time to improve it to ensure that employers know their duties and workers are aware of their rights. Significant enforcement pathways and penalties will also be essential. In addition, sexual harassment thrives where there is a wider context of inequality between the sexes. So, while providing a definition is a big step forward, laws need to also reflect the requirement for and right to equality across all provisions. Again, the recent draft revised Labour Code includes some very positive steps in this direction, but there is still more work to do.

It is clear that just changing the law cannot bring an end to sexual harassment. Awareness-raising to change attitudes is also essential, to highlight the effect of harassment, to show it will not be tolerated and to address the inequalities that feed into a power imbalance between women and men in the world of work. The fact that just 27 per cent of managers in Viet Nam are women as pointed out in the new ILO report on Women in Business and Management is just one example of this imbalance. Nonetheless, getting the law right on harassment is a vital starting-point. It gives the signal that the Government and the Party takes the issue seriously and employers must do the same.

Viet Nam has ratified the ILO Convention on Discrimination (Convention 111), which places an obligation on states to address gender inequality, encompassing gender discriminatory behaviours. Additionally, a joint report by ILO and the Ministry of Labour, Invalids and Social Affairs (MOLISA) in March 2013 also noted that without a clear definition in the Labour Code or decrees, Vietnamese workers are vulnerable to sexual harassment, which clearly violates fundamental rights.

In 2015, with ILO support, MOLISA, together with Viet Nam General Confederation of Labour and Viet Nam Chamber of Commerce and Industry, launched the Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the workplace, encouraging a nation-wide application of the Code by all companies in both the public and private sectors. The Code gives practical guidance to the Government, employers’ organizations, trade unions and workers on what actions are considered sexual harassment in the workplace, how it can be prevented and what steps should be taken when it happens.

The Code was designed to fill a recognized gap in the law, but it does not and cannot replace the need for clarity in the law and it is not enforceable. As Viet Nam’s policy makers, social partners, enterprise owners and workers all now recognize that sexual harassment is needs to be stopped, this should be reflected in the Labour Code and not be left to a voluntary code. Nationally, laws must be designed to protect victims of sexual harassment. Only then will the people of Viet Nam see real change.

Funding for the New Industrial Relations Framework project is provided by the United States Department of Labor under cooperative agreement number IL- 29690-16-75-K-11. This material does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the United States Department of Labor, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the United States Government. One hundred percentage of the total costs of the project or program is financed with Federal funds, for a total of 4 million dollars.