Mon | Dec 5, 2016

The ugly head of sexual harrassment

Published:Monday | April 13, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I wish to thank the reader who shared her story about the harassment she endured in her workplace several years ago at the hands of a supervisor. In this week's article, I share with you some of the important aspects of that story, beginning with the events about which she complained:

- One of her supervisors often called both of her phones before 6 a.m. to tell her how attractive he found her.

- He refused her leave requests and stated that he would not allow her to take time off work so that she could be with another man.

- He told her that if she would agree to be with him, her pay would be increased and he would cover some of her son's monthly expenses.

- He would interrogate her about her whereabouts and activities if she turned off her phones in order to avoid his calls.

- Even after successfully requesting a transfer, the supervisor continued to call her and ask why she was defaming his character.

- He eventually sent her a message in which he accused her of having had sexual relations with "every other man".

While the reader did not say over what period the events occurred, she finally took a stand, sending a memorandum to her boss, that she copied to other managers, to say that if no steps were taken to stop the harassment, she would contact an attorney.

Interestingly, the reader said that there were other women in the organisation who had suffered similar experiences with that supervisor, and one had even resigned in a bid to escape further harassment.

Although Jamaica has long identified sexual harassment as a problem, and drafted sexual harassment legislation should have been tabled for consideration several years ago, it is unfortunate that, today, the reader would still have no specific legislation on which to rely to protect herself. Instead, she would either have to rely on the employment and labour relations laws, if attempts were made to terminate her employment in response to her complaints, or take the chance that what she had endured could fit within some existing common-law remedy.

 

Constitutional redress

 

Thankfully, however, she might have been able to seek Constitutional redress since the Charter of Rights and Fundamental Freedoms makes specific provision for all individuals to enjoy the right to freedom from discrimination on the grounds of being male or female.

As Tracy Robinson wrote in her presentation to the Jamaican Bar Association titled 'Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Let the Discussion Begin!', the area of sexual harassment is "an under-legislated terrain". She stated that, "... employers have responded ... in a haphazard way" and that, "Too few employers seek to prevent sexual harassment through a policy that is clear and well publicised and allows victims to have their grievances addressed. Some handle allegations of sexual harassment poorly, ignore them, or fail to adopt the correct procedures for discipline. Many victims of sexual harassment find themselves undermined by employers [sic] who fail to protect them through a clear policy and a commitment to gender equality ... ."

The reality is that the trend of harassment is not limited to lower-level employees. It exists within professional bodies, and at high levels within many organisations. Despite this, the absence of local legislation means that it has no precise definition and may often be misunderstood.

However, if we look to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), sexual harassment is described as "sex-based discrimination" and defined to be "sex-based behaviour that is unwelcome and offensive to its recipient". As the ILO Convention on Discrimination (Employment and Occupational) was ratified by Jamaica as far back as 1972, requiring states to enable legislation to prohibit all forms of discrimination and exclusion, it should not have taken this long for the Sexual Harassment Act to be placed on the legislative agenda. Although my research is yet to reveal a draft of the act, there have been positive signs that it could become a reality this year.

We now wait ...

• Sherry Ann McGregor is a partner and mediator in the firm of Nunes Scholefield DeLeon & Co. Please send questions and comments to lawsofeve@gmail.com or lifestyle@gleanerjm.com.