Government, employer and worker representatives gather in Penang to combat rising risk of sexual harassment at work

An ILO technical report findings suggests trend in increases in the scale and risk of sexual harassment at work.

Press release | PENANG | 02 October 2001

PENANG (ILO News): Women in Asia are moving into the labour force in record numbers, but increasingly they occupy the bottom rungs of the employment ladder – a combination that an ILO technical report says is leading to increases in the scale and risk of sexual harassment at work.

Worldwide, the report says, "women now comprise an increasing share of the world’s labour force – at least one third in all regions except Northern Africa and Western Asia." In most of Asia, the share is even higher. The percentage of women registered as part of the labour force in 1995-97, "amounts to well over 40 per cent in East, South-East and Central Asia, and around one third in South Asia".

At the same time, the report says, the majority of Asia’s women workers "are found in jobs with low security, low pay, low conditions of work, low status and low bargaining power in a narrow range of occupations, all characteristics which enhance the risk of becoming subjected to sexual harassment."

The report1and its conclusions will be considered by representatives of government, employers’ and workers’ organizations from 15 countries2 at the ILO/Japan Regional Tripartite Seminar on Action Against Sexual Harassment at Work in Asia and the Pacific. The three-day meeting, with financial support from the Government of Japan, opens in Penang, Malaysia, on Tuesday 2 October.

The scale of sexual harassment in workplaces has "increased considerably" during the last two decades, the report says. However, drawing a true picture of sexual harassment in the workplace is difficult. Factors including fear of retaliation, or of losing desperately needed income, or feelings of shame mean that few women take action against sexual harassment; so much so that the number of reported cases is only the tip of the iceberg, the report notes.

Levels of awareness also vary, as do the type and quality of data collected. For example, in some countries, the report says, statistics on sexual harassment "are sometimes compiled together with other kinds of violations such as breach of modesty, sexual assault and threats."

Research findings also vary – however the report says that the "overall majority of findings shows not only that sexual harassment at work exists but that it is a problem." Among the studies and surveys cited in the report was one in Japan, in which almost two thirds of respondents said they had been sexually harassed at least once. In another, in the Republic of Korea, a survey of public officers found almost 70 per cent of women said they had experienced sexual harassment. Surveys of two government departments in Penang and Perlis in Malaysia also found that 83 per cent and 88 per cent of women respondents had experienced some form of sexual harassment.

More women in high risk categories and occupations

According to the report, those at particular risk of sexual harassment include: "young women and men at work or preparing for work in education and training institutions, domestic workers, migrant workers and workers with little job security, women in male-dominated occupations, or in situations where large numbers of women are supervised by small numbers of men."

The report says domestic and entertainment workers are often "very vulnerable to sexual harassment." It points to a "high degree of subordination between the worker and employer", and the fact that domestic services are often excluded from protective labour legislation. It cites evidence gathered in a contributing country study in Nepal: that domestic workers were highly vulnerable to sexual and other violence, but circumstances including isolation, long hours of work and lack of social contact meant that few took action. In one instance, a 13-year-old domestic helper in Kathmandu "was not only subjected to sexual harassment and assault, but also had boiling oil poured over her hand when she tried to say something about the incident."

For foreign workers in domestic service, the isolation may be even more pronounced. They lack support from the local community, and may be more afraid of reporting harassment.

Further, their numbers are increasing. The report says, "the export of women workers is being encouraged by many governments." In two decades, Indonesia, for example, has recorded a dramatic increase in women’s migration for employment. "In 1983-4 the Indonesian Ministry of Manpower processed three men for every two women for overseas employment. The ratio was reversed to five women for every man in 1998/99".
In the Philippines and Sri Lanka, too, most of the authorized outflows of migrant workers are women. The report also notes "a marked increase" in the numbers of undocumented or irregular migrant women. These women "are particularly prone to abuse and violence, as they are unprotected and often persecuted in the host country."

Other at risk groups include, workers in temporary, casual or part-time work – all categories that have become more common world wide as the globalization process leads to "an expansion of atypical and precarious jobs". In one garment factory in Thailand, the report says, "workers found it difficult to apply for sick leave as it could result in dismissal, let alone expose the manager who was sexually harassing them."

Awareness and action against sexual harassment

Moves to combat sexual harassment are increasing. Both in Asia and the Pacific, and globally, the report says, "implicit protection of sexual harassment is giving way to explicit recognition and protection against acts of sexual harassment." Although legal definitions of sexual harassment vary, the report notes that the most important principle is that sexual harassment is conduct which is unwelcome and unwanted by the recipient. Sexual harassment ranges from the most extreme forms, sexual assault and rape, to sexual blackmail or ‘quid pro quo’ harassment, and creating a hostile working environment. The ILO’s Committee of Experts considers that sexual harassment falls within the scope of the ILO Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No 111) – one of the eight fundamental Conventions that together provide the basis for the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda.

At a national level, the report notes, since 1995, legislation to protect against sexual harassment has been adopted in Australia, Bangladesh, Japan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong, China. In some countries, including Japan and India, the judiciary has taken the lead in prohibiting sexual harassment. In India in 1997, the Supreme Court issued a landmark judgement establishing sexual harassment as "a social problem of considerable magnitude" and a violation of the fundamental rights of women workers – and laid down guidelines to protect these rights.

Another relatively new development, the report notes, is legislation that provides for an affirmative duty to prevent sexual harassment – now included in laws in Australia, the Republic of Korea, and in the Supreme Court decision in India.

The report says that countries that have recognized sexual harassment as a distinct legal wrong, either by statute or by court decision have tended to provide more effective legal protection to victims of sexual harassment. The ILO’s experience, it says "reveals benefits to the introduction of specific and comprehensive provisions dealing with sexual harassment in national legislation."

Other forms of legislation can also offer protection. The report says labour law can offer substantial protection, but in practice, "it is usually limited to sexual blackmail cases where the complainant has been terminated from employment, unless prohibition of sexual harassment is specifically covered by the law." Some labour laws seek to protect women from dangerous or hazardous conditions – but the report notes that these provisions "may, in fact, end up curtailing their right to work".

Criminal law is increasingly being used to address cases of sexual harassment, the report says. However it notes several drawbacks: criminal law does not address the full range of work-related sexual harassment; complainants may be hesitant to report cases to the police; investigation and court processes do not provide confidentiality; witnesses are usually scarce and the burden of proof is higher than in civil cases; and court cases cost time and money. Neither, the report says, are criminal penalties necessarily sought by the complainants. Instead, it says, "the majority of those who are being sexually harassed want the issue to be handled discreetly and swiftly so that the behaviour stops and are not necessarily intent on penalizing the perpetrator." Occupational safety and health laws, the report notes, may provide a further avenue.

Laws alone are not enough

Workplace measures are an essential part of action against sexual harassment, the report says. "Even in countries with comprehensive and well-functioning legal systems, workplace procedures are necessary to protect workers from sexual harassment and enterprises from expensive measures for redress."

It points to the increasing number of guidelines and codes issued together with legislation, including in Australia, Japan, India, and Hong Kong, China. In other countries, such as Malaysia, where legislation has not so far been enacted, workplace policies are the channel available. The Malaysian Government has developed a Code of Practice offering detailed guidance for employers. Prevention, the report says, "is key", and the main role of (workplace) measures "often is to ensure that sexual harassment does not take place."

The report also points to action by employers’ and workers’ organizations. The Japanese Federation of Employers Associations (Nikeiren) produced a manual in advance of revisions to national legislation, advising companies and its municipal offices on how to comply. The report notes that the number of employers who have introduced policies on sexual harassment "appears to have increased over the last 10 years, especially in larger enterprises". In Japan, for example, a 1999 survey found that 71 per cent of the companies with 1000 or more employees had implemented measures against sexual harassment. In Malaysia, 100 companies had adopted a workplace policy 15 months after the introduction of the new Code of Practice.

Trade union action has included the adoption of a Draft Resolution against Sexual Harassment by members of national trade union federations in Asia and the Pacific at a workshop organized earlier this year by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Individual union actions include an agreement signed by the union and management of one of Japan’s largest supermarket chains, articulating the employers’ responsibility for prevention. In India, unions have brought complaints and negotiated with employers in small private sector firms and in the unorganized sector, "in which formal policies for tackling sexual harassment are virtually non-existent".