1 in 2 sexually harassed at work says study in Singapore

* Women’s groups want proper definition of harassment and call on victims to speak up
* Over half of 500 people surveyed say they had been sexually harassed at the workplace.
* One in five was a man – some were harassed by other men.

These figures come from a 16-month study by women’s rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) on workplace sexual harassment in Singapore. It is a follow-up to its 1994 one, done mainly among Japanese companies here.

Just what constitutes sexual harassment differs from society to society, but Aware said it is universally accepted that it is an unwanted and unwelcome act, distinct from flirting. Often, it happens repeatedly.

Harassment can be physical, verbal or visual, and can include unwelcome jokes, e-mail or text messages of a sexually explicit nature, being touched in a discomforting way and, in extreme cases, rape and assault.

Ms Leigh Pasqual, who chairs the Aware sub-committee on the issue, said her panel ‘had a sense of indignation’ at what it heard coming through on Aware’s helpline, prompting the study. More are also complaining: in 2006, Aware got eight calls related to sexual harassment at the workplace. Last year, it got 19.

She cited a recent example of a restaurant supervisor in her 20s, who was resting in the back room of the eatery earlier this year when a male colleague leaned over and molested her.

When she drummed up the courage to tell her boss about it, he transferred her. But her alleged harasser kept his job. It is not known if she went to the police.

The survey also found that about 11 per cent said they were told they could lose their job or be passed over for promotions if they refuse to grant sexual favours.

Seven in 10 respondents were unaware whether their workplaces had sexual harassment policies. Lawyer Lim Jo See, who draws up employment contracts, confirmed that companies here rarely have clauses to address the issue.

The heads of Aware and the Singapore Council of Women’s Organisations, Mrs Constance Singam and Dr Ann Tan respectively, have called for a proper definition of harassment and for victims to speak up.

Labour MP Halimah Yacob said the statistics were higher than she had expected. She said companies should put in place policies to prevent harassment and systems to address grievances when it occurs.

On the lack of laws for sexual harassment here, the Government has said, while it is not an offence, victims may file reports with the Ministry of Manpower and the police. Offenders can still be nailed under the Penal Code for the more extreme forms of harassment, such as when they use criminal force.


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