Home Opinion Violence and Harassment in the workplace

Violence and Harassment in the workplace

by Lesotho Times
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Maletsie Letsie (Labour Inspector- Industrial Relations Section)

Violence and harassment in the workplace is abuse of power and it affects men, women, and children. It happens in all spheres of work (public and private sectors). However, the focus is on the private sector which is governed by the Labour Code Order No. 24 of 1992.  The private sector includes the informal sector and working children. Violence and harassment affect workers in the most vulnerable work situations with poor access to labour rights such as freedom of association, collective bargaining, decent work, non-discrimination, and access to justice. There are certain groups which are at risk of harassment and violence in the workplace where there is unequal power relations, low pay, unfavorable working conditions and these groups are usually women, children, gays, lesbians, and transgender people. Violence and harassment at work is a violation of human rights and human dignity; physical violence in the workplace happens less frequently however violence in the form of harassment, threats, intimidation, bullying, and unwanted sexual advances happens a lot.

In Lesotho violence (especially harassment) in the workplace is underreported/ not reported. There has never been a reported case of any form of harassment in the Industrial Relations Section of the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Furthermore, there has never been a decided case in the Labour Court of Lesotho on issues of harassment in the workplace. Violence affects employees’ performance, motivation, loyalty, quality of work, and the quality of services they provide. Also, violence and harassment can cause labour conflicts, failure to retain employees, and high employee turnover.

Section 200 of the Labour Code Order No. 24 of 1992 explains what sexual harassment is but the definition is vague. However, 2003 Codes of Good Practice try to give an employer direction as to how to deal with issues of sexual harassment in the workplace. The question this article would like to pose to the private sector in Lesotho is whether there is an existence of policies on violence and harassment; are employees aware that such policies exist? Answers to this question will help each and every Mosotho understand why there is underreporting/ no reporting of cases of harassment in the workplace in Lesotho. Due to the fact that sexual harassment is defined vaguely in the Labour Code, one would expect the International Labour Standards to serve as standards to be used when dealing with issues of harassment. However, there is no specific International Standard on violence and harassment at work but existing International Labour Organization’s (ILO) labour standards have addressed the issue in various ways:

  • Convention 189 Domestic Workers Convention (2011) requires ratifying States, along with Trade Unions and Employers’ Organizations to take action against any form of violence, abuse or harassment at work.
  • The 2014 ILO Protocol on Forced Labour specifies that States should take measures to support due diligence by the private and public sectors to respond to the risk of forced labour and to protect workers, in particular migrant workers, from abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices.
  • Recommendation 200 on HIV and AIDS and the World of Work (2010) set out steps and ensuring actions to prevent and prohibit violence and harassment in the workplace.
  • Recommendation 204 concerning the Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy requires Member States to ensure that an integrated policy framework is included in national development strategies or plans. The framework should promote equality and elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence, including gender based violence in the workplace.
  • Convention No. 111 is also an enabler in the promotion of systematic integration of a gender dimension, including measures to address sexual harassment and violence in collective bargaining.

Violence and harassment in the workplace happens in many different ways and forms. The following list contains some aspects that one can look at in order to find out if he/she is being violated at work:

  • Evaluation of work:
  • Unjust or exaggerated criticism of work
  • Negative evaluation of work, internal memos
  • Excessive work monitoring
  • Excessive medical monitoring
  • Assignment of tasks
  • Withdrawal of work tasks
  • Overwork
  • Absence of work
  • Proliferation of different/new tasks
  • Tasks inappropriate to the victim’s skills level or state of health
  • Pointless or absurd tasks
  • Career management
  • Blackmail concerning employment, promotion or transfer
  • Compulsory transfer
  • Withdrawal or redistribution of work equipment (offices, fax machines, computers, etc)
  • Discrimination regarding leave, working hours, work burdens or training requests
  • Verbal incitements to give up the job
  • Professional communication
  • Distortion or concealment of the information needed to perform the work, sabotage of the work
  • Discrediting the victim’s work in front of others
  • Offences
  • Breaches of labour law (withdrawal of year-end bonuses, holiday allowances, legal holidays, etc)
  • Theft of employment documents
  • Verbal violence
  • Intrusion into private life (asking indiscreet questions, listening into phone calls, reading the victim’s emails, etc)
  • Criticizing the victim’s private life
  • Verbal bullying, shouting at the victim
  • Remarks impinging on a person’s dignity (mockery, misplaced humour, racism, sexism, etc)
  • Disparaging a person in front of others
  • Refusing to cooperate with the victim
  • Manipulation of verbal communication (denying an oral agreement, lying, vague or shifting comments, emotional blackmail, manipulation of feelings)
  • Forbidding other workers to talk to the victim
  • Spiteful rumours, unfounded accusations
  • Physical violence
  • Aggressive gestures (door-slamming, table-thumping, etc)
  • Threats of physical aggression
  • Physical aggression (jostling, spitting, stepping on the victim’s feet, molestation, etc)
  • Damaging or destroying the victim’s work equipment or personal property
  • Stalking (following the victim in the street, stalking out the victim’s home)
  • Extortion of money / racketeering through physical intimidation
  • Hazardous working conditions (repetitive exposure of the victim, but not of others to dangerous products, and repeated handling of objects that are too heavy, etc)
  • Sexual violence
  • Sexual violence without physical contact (making advances, allusions or remarks with sexual connotations, undressing the victim with one’s eyes, etc)
  • Sexual violence with physical contact (brushing up against somebody, deliberate physical contact, groping, etc)
  • Behavioural violence
  • Minor vexations, mean tricks (turning off the heating, hiding things, etc)
  • Offensive gestures (turning one’s back, refusing to say hello, refusing to shake hands, shrugs, sighs, heavenward glances, etc).

Studies show that certain situations exacerbate the risk of violence, and must therefore be taken into account when adopting prevention measures. No sector is immune to violence but the occurrence, frequency, and intensity depends on a large extent on the organization of the work. It is also important to note that employees do suffer third party violence and harassment. Employees which are most at risk of violence include:

  • Employees in contact with the public
  • Employees who handle or have custody of valuables such as money
  • Employees who carry out inspection or surveillance tasks
  • Employees in contact with psychologically unstable individuals
  • Employees who perform their tasks alone or in isolated places
  • Employees who are frequently on the road (truck drivers and taxi drivers)
  • Employees whose occupational environment is related to the consumption of alcohol
  • Employees who work at night
  • Working children.

Sexual harassment, the only form of harassment mentioned in the Labour Code Order No. 24 of 1992 is a form of sex discrimination. It is very difficult to give a general explanation of sexual harassment because to identify it, many elements have to be taken into consideration. However, the mostly used definitions include:

  • Quid pro quo: any physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature and other conduct based on sex affecting the dignity of women and men, which is unwelcome, unreasonable, and offensive to the recipient; and a person’s rejection of, or submission to such conduct is used explicitly or implicitly as a basis for a decision which affects that person’s job.
  • Hostile work environment: conduct that creates an intimidating, hostile or humiliating working environment for the recipient.

Men are affected by sexual harassment but the most vulnerable group to sexual harassment is women. Women are mostly affected by sexual harassment because of the changing patterns of work in that there is an increase in their participation in the labour market. This increase has led to non-standard and precarious forms of employment characterized by informal, low-paid and poorly protected work. These characteristics make women especially vulnerable to sexual harassment. At their worst, economic vulnerability and poverty lock women into dependence on exploitative employers.

Groups such as gays, lesbians, and transgender people are also targets of sexual harassment. A lot of people do not understand that people have a right to choose who they are and nobody should be discriminated on the basis of his/her sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. The lack of understanding on issues of gender is the major cause why these groups experience sex discrimination.

To effectively root out harassment in the workplace, Government, Trade Unions (employees), and Employers’ Organizations (employers) have to work together. The following measures could be taken to prevent harassment in the workplace:

  • Prevention through information: codes of conduct, guides, policy statements, public information programs and trainings for all concerned are good measures for prevention. Enterprises are encouraged to adopt rules against any act of sexual harassment, with a provision for a follow-up procedure in case of problems. Enterprises could draw up a policy on issues of harassment, provide management training, set up complaints procedures and circulate information to the workforce as a whole.
  • Daring to say no: keeping quiet and burying one’s head in the sand is no solution. Instead, the person who pays unwelcome attentions must be made to understand that he or she must stop. The person on the receiving end should confide in trustworthy colleagues, note the various incidents, find out if the enterprise has any rules on issues of harassment, inform management and ask them to intervene in order to end the harassment, and perhaps get the Labour Inspectors involved in the whole issue.
  • Speak out: victims of sexual harassment have a right to speak out and be defended.

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