November 1st, 2013

Work injury compensation for sexual harassment?

By Jolene Tan, Programmes and Communications Senior Manager, AWARE

The High Court judgment that “Victims of workplace attacks qualify for compensation” (Oct 25) means that the Work Injury Compensation Act (WICA) is not limited to accidental acts, as was previously thought.

In this case, one worker set another on fire. But abusive or hostile acts from co-workers can be damaging to well-being even if they do not take such dramatic forms.

workers-compensationCould this decision have implications for cases of workplace sexual harassment in Singapore?

Central to the ruling was the principle that “interaction between fellow employees/workers” is an “ordinary incident of employment”. The judge stated that this was especially so “when they are working on assigned tasks in a shared workspace”.

This is a welcome recognition of the social component of workplace safety. Employers profit from requiring employees to work cooperatively on tasks, or at least to occupy the same physical space, such as a factory floor, shop or office, often for long periods.

The law rightly acknowledges that interaction between colleagues are part of workplace conditions.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) has long argued that workplace safety and health regulations should include measures against sexual harassment.

Harassment can involve unwanted physical contact, sexually-coloured remarks, showing co-workers explicit material and sexual demands.

It has an impact on workers’ physical and psychological well-being, in some cases driving them to leave their jobs.

In a 2008 survey of 500 people, AWARE found that 54 per cent of respondents had experienced some form of workplace sexual harassment, and 25 per cent of them knew of others who had experienced it.

Employees whose employers ignore their complaints have few options now for redress. Criminal charges or civil lawsuits against co-workers are cumbersome and expensive. By contrast, the WICA regime is easier to navigate, and no lawyer is required.

Claims are made by submitting bills and medical certificates to the employer, or filling in a form to notify the Ministry of Manpower if compensation is not paid. The employee need not show that the employer is at fault, merely that the injury occurred due to the employment.

This is potentially of assistance to some victims of workplace sexual harassment. Medical leave wages and medical expenses can be claimed under WICA, which might be relevant should victims seek psychiatric help due to the incident.

Most cases do not result in medical expenses but in an unsafe, hostile working environment for the victim. So, although the threat of WICA liability might cause employers to take complaints more seriously, most cases would not be adequately covered.

Moreover, victims are usually less interested in placing blame or extracting compensation than in simply continuing their work in safer conditions. Legislation requiring employers to adopt formal processes for resolving these complaints, therefore, remains the best solution.

Employers are the main beneficiaries of employee collaboration and should justly be responsible for ensuring that it does not subject workers to sexual harassment.

This article was originally published here in TODAY Voices on 1 November 2013.

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