When The Boss Gets Too Close
“The woman (Chinese) worked in a manufacturing company. Her head of department touched her neck and talked about touching her. She was emotionally disturbed and went to see a doctor. However, she was not given medical leave as the doctor was told by her company not to do so. She was being picked on for laziness and lateness thereafter. She resigned from the company and filed a police report as requested by the human resource manager and her boss before they would consider taking any action. In the end, she was released earlier from work and the company refused to pursue the matter, stating that the police report is too brief. There is also no documentation about this incident during exit interview. Caller is currently jobless. She said MOM refused to give her assistance because she had made a police report.”
- Description by AWARE of a call made to the helpline in 2006 reported in 2008 report
Government and Employer Attitudes
Workplace sexual harassment is the unwelcome behavior by one party to another that ‘introduces an inappropriate sexual element into what should be a professional relationship’.
Singapore is no stranger to workplace sexual harassment. Incidences of workplace sexual harassment have received widespread mainstream media coverage. A recent study on workplace sexual harassment conducted by AWARE in 2008 revealed that 272 out of 500 respondents in a survey have experienced some form of sexual harassment. 31 respondents reported receiving “career threats” if they did not comply with requests for dates or sexual favours. Specific experiences of sexual harassment were also recorded: “[a male colleague] placed his hand under the sleeves of my blouse … and said ‘I want to feel the material’”.
Despite constant academic and media attention being drawn to the problem, the government and most employers seem disinterested and are dismissive of the idea that something has to be done to tackle workplace sexual harassment. The government’s position is that it should not interfere too much with employment practice. It also views the current legal framework as providing sufficient safeguards and adequate avenues of redress for victims of workplace sexual harassment via the criminal law. When questioned about the 2008 AWARE study, the Minister for Manpower replied in Parliament that “Singapore has a range of laws against various forms of sexual harassment, including at the workplace … for cases that do not involve a criminal breach, workers should report such behaviour directly to their management …”
Employers similarly exhibit a tacit refusal to accept that workplace sexual harassment is a problem at all. The 2008 AWARE study showed that many companies do not have policies and internal processes in place to deal with the problem. The same study also indicated that many companies were ‘disinterested’ or ‘reluctant’ to engage on the subject. One such organization’s reply was: “we have no inputs and we do not believe such a problem exists in Singapore.”
Current Law Adequate Protection for Victims?
Under the current law, the only avenues of redress lie in civil suits, sought through a patchwork of common law actions in tort (such as battery, assault and harassment) or contract. Barring which, the victim is forced to rely on the state to intervene in cases where sexual harassment assumes a criminal character. This is problematic. Where the claim lies in the common law, the victim must incur considerable personal expenses to seek compensation and the outcome of trial is never guaranteed. Victims who are unable to afford legal fees will be deprived of legal redress. Certain actions pit the employee against the employer in an adversarial system where there can only be one winner. In such situations, the employee will probably not be able to resume his previous course of employment, even though the court rules in his favour. A victim may be deterred from bringing an action in order to keep his/her job. To make matters worse, if the superiors are the harassers, the victim can be easily coerced into inaction with threats.
Victims of workplace sexual harassment may also not be adequately protected by the criminal law. Most criminal provisions only deal with overt and physical forms of sexual crimes such as rape and outrage of modesty, but fail to effectively deal with the more subtle sexual harassment. The only criminal offence in which sexual harassment may fall under is defined in section 13A(1) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Cap. 184, 1997 Rev. Ed. Sing.). It states that it is an offence to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress to another person’ through the use of ‘threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour’ or display of ‘any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting’. In the context of workplace sexual harassment, section 13A(1) criminalizes unwanted acts such as lewd jokes and displaying of pornographic material to the victim. The section however does not cover acts such as pestering the victim to go on a date, or continuously staring at the victim’s body (a reported behaviour in the AWARE report). The criminal law thus does not effectively deal with sexual harassment, which can come in many forms. Further, the decision to prosecute a harasser is at the discretion of the Attorney-General’s Chambers and no action might be taken, even after police reports have been made.
The Need for Formal and Informal Regulatory Mechanisms
Given the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment in Singapore and the unique nature of the problem, appropriate mechanisms are required, both formal and informal. Formal mechanisms are required to send a clear signal that workplace sexual harassment is not a social norm and will not be tolerated. They allow the State to step in to regulate behaviour where necessary.
An important formal regulatory mechanism that can be adopted is the enactment of specific sexual harassment legislation that criminalizes and prohibits such behaviour. This is the approach adopted in countries such as America, Australia and Canada. The Australian Commonwealth Sex Discrimination Act 1984, for example, prohibits ‘unwelcome sexual advances’ or ‘conduct of a sexual nature’ in a wide variety of situations including in the context of employment. Statutory bodies with investigative and judicial powers can also be created so as to allow employers the option of referring complaints.
Informal mechanisms are equally necessary as they provide a softer solution to resolve disputes and provide the employer with options for prevention and cure. For example, the Ministry of Manpower can help employers by providing clear guidelines on how to handle complaints and resolve disputes relating to sexual harassment. Employers can also set in place internal guidelines, policies and clear procedures relating to sexual harassment that allows for disciplinary action against a harasser. Employees should be informed and educated about these policies and guidelines. Several multinational corporations in Singapore such as Shell, IBM and McKinsey in fact have such internal frameworks in place. This however, has not been adopted by most local firms.