March 14th, 2014

Recommendations for the Harassment Bill

In preparation for the Parliament debate on the Protection from Harassment Bill, AWARE wrote an email with our recommendations on the bill to all members of Parliament and Ministers. The email is below.

 

parliamentDear MP,

We understand that the Protection from Harassment Bill will be debated soon.  We are pleased to share our recommendations on the Bill, which we hope you will take into account when deliberating on it.

The Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) provides support to victims of harassment, including through our Sexual Assault Befrienders Service.  We have also conducted research into sexual harassment in Singapore and worked closely with the Ministry of Law as they developed the Bill.

A welcome step forward

The Bill reflects a recognition that harassment and stalking are serious problems.  We welcome the stronger civil remedies available to victims and the explicit recognition that stalking and harassment may include online and/or extra-territorial conduct.  However, we have concerns about some features of the Bill.

Employer responsibility

Disappointingly, the Bill does not require employers to institute policies against workplace sexual harassment (WSH), even though the Bill seeks to address WSH. Please urge the Government to require employers to have WSH policies, which should include formal processes for resolving WSH complaints from workers.

The Ministry of Manpower website states that employers “who create workplace safety and health risks will be held accountable”.  The lack of policies and procedures to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment does indeed create a workplace safety and health risk for employees.

Apart from the current Bill, this gap can be filled by amending the Employment Act and/or the Ministry of Manpower announcing and enforcing a binding code of conduct.  The Fair Consideration Framework shows MOM’s willingness to intervene to ensure fair workplace environments – so why not against WSH?

There are five key advantages of mandating employer WSH policies instead of relying only on the Protection Order (PO)/civil suit regime in the current Bill.

  1. It is fairer.  Employers benefit from co-worker collaboration and should be responsible for safe workplace environments.
  2. It is better at preventing WSH from occurring.  Legal remedies often seem remote.  Employer policies pro-actively integrated into organisations will be much more effective in fostering an atmosphere of zero tolerance for WSH.
  3. It offers a more effective way of addressing WSH.  Perpetrators are often in more senior positions than victims, who hesitate to use the law without explicit assurance from employers that they will not be victimised for it (e.g. terminated).  Police action in response to a PO breach is cumbersome, where a company can take swift, straightforward measures.
  4. It is less costly for society.  Employer processes are less resource-intensive than court processes, however simplified.  In practice, ensuring compliance with a PO against a co-worker will involve employers in any case.  It is more efficient to mandate employer investigation, reserving state action for cases where employer inaction makes it necessary.
  5. It is better for businesses.  Victims who feel unsupported by employers often simply leave, affecting staff retention.  Moreover, staff relations may be unnecessarily damaged by employees seeking POs and lawsuits, rather than resolving complaints through less polarising internal grievance processes.

Some WSH facts:

  • Our 2008 survey shows that 54% have experienced WSH. 79% of victims were female.  11% received career threats for not complying with sexual demands.  WSH affects how inclusive workplaces are for women.
  • A recent Straits Times report (9 Mar) referred to interviews with 10 victims. All were dissatisfied with their employers’ responses.  This is consistent with our experience.  TAFEP’s guidelines are insufficient – they are non-binding and give little prominence to WSH.
  • WSH damages morale and productivity, and raises labour turnover costs.
  • All other leading business centres (e.g. Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, Britain, the US) impose obligations on employers to address WSH.

Civil remedies: access and scope

  1. Protection Orders.  The introduction of POs against harassment and stalking is a sensible extension of the well-established Women’s Charter regime for protection from family violence.  However:

a) How will the Government ensure that obtaining POs is quick, easy and inexpensive?  Currently, victims do not take action against harassment because the legal processes are expensive and complex.  They should not have to engage lawyers or navigate bureaucracy in order to obtain relief.

b) Under what circumstances will the police take enforcement action?  Under the Bill, breach of a PO is a non-seizable offence, unlike under the Women’s Charter Personal Protection Order (PPO) regime.  This means that police have no obligation to investigate or initiate charges.  Unless they pro-actively exercise their discretion to do so, harassers can breach POs with impunity.  We welcome clarification from the Government and the Singapore Police Force about enforcement action.

  1. Will claims for damages for emotional injury be allowed?  We welcome the availability of civil damages for stalking and harassment.  However, the Bill does not specify that these claims can include damages for emotional injury – often a major component of the harm done to victims.  We urge the Government to state expressly that claims for such damages will be allowed.

Thank you for your time and attention.  If you would like further information, we would greatly welcome further discussion of these issues with you.  Please feel free to contact me at ed@aware.org.sg.

Yours sincerely,

Corinna Lim
Executive Director, AWARE

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