Workers speak out against sexual harassment; LRW Media Statement, South Africa - August-September 2014

PRESS RELEASE: Workers speak out against sexual harassment: "When it comes to gender we are the last on the agenda;" LRW Media Statement, South Africa. Sexual harassment in the workplace can have a devastating effect on victims – and yet it is still not a priority for many trade unions and in many work spaces.

PRESS RELEASE: Workers speak out against sexual harassment: "When it comes to gender we are the last on the agenda."

August/September 2014


Sexual harassment in the workplace can have a devastating effect on victims – and yet it is still not a priority for many trade unions and in many work spaces. In fact, within the trade union movement itself, there are numerous cases of sexual harassment that have been reported.

These were some of the findings that emerged during a mini-conference on the theme How We Can Create a Workplace Free of Sexual Harassment, held at Community House, Salt River this week. The mini conference was attended by trade union members, workers, representatives from labour NGOs, the Women’s Legal Centre and the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Women spoke about being “hugged”, “grabbed”, “kissed” and “subjected to suggestive sounds and comments”, especially when working in male-dominated environments. Sharone Daniels from Cosatu even spoke about being “inappropriately touched by a customer” whilst working in a retail shop.

The event was organised by the Labour Rights for Women (LRW) campaign, which includes members from all four labour federations – Cosatu, Nactu, Consawu and Fedusa – as well as the Labour Research Service (LRS) and WageIndicator/Mywage. Issues that were discussed included examples of what constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace and the experiences of women workers who have suffered some form of sexual harassment.  The mini-conference also looked at workplace practices and policies that are aimed at combatting sexual harassment, and lastly at the nature and effectiveness of existing legislation. 

According to the Constitution, sexual harassment is a form of discrimination and is prohibited. It is defined as “unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature” and can take various forms ranging from verbal, non-verbal and physical actions (including staring, whistling, touching and even rape) to victimisation of employees and cases of quid pro quo (granting a promotion in exchange for sex, for example). Sexual harassment is not only experienced by women but also by male employees.

Employees who have experienced sexual harassment should report the matter, and it can be dealt with internally, through the labour court, via the CCMA and even in criminal court, if a charge is laid.

However, in discussion at the mini-conference it was found that many victims did not report incidences of sexual harassment for a number of reasons. These included fear of retribution by the offender, fear of being called a “bitch” or other names by co-workers, being scared of revenge or dismissal, worry that somehow it was the victims’ own fault, and a lack of awareness how to report and follow the correct procedures for dealing with sexual harassment.

In addition, there was a fear that management, HR departments and/or trade unions would not support victims.

Allison* (surname withheld) was one victim of sexual harassment who spoke about the lack of support she received from her supervisor, manager and even social worker when she reported a traumatic incidence of sexual harassment. Her experience led to a breakdown, and affected her relationships with her family and husband. She is still waiting for her day in the labour court to come. Allison’s powerful testimony was an example of how sexual harassment can affect a victim not only during the incident itself, but during the process afterwards.

Representatives from the Women’s Legal Centre and the CCMA addressed the mini-conference and identified what sexual harassment consists of, and how to take the correct steps to report incidences.

Representatives from Cosatu, Nactu, Consawu and Fedusa all acknowledged that sexual harassment was a serious issue in the workplace, and pledged to:

  • Make sure that existing policies on sexual harassment were enforced.
  • Make sure policies were put in place, if they were lacking.
  • Be supportive of victims of sexual harassment, and to make sure their grievances were heard.
  •  Move from talking to action – to make sure there was implementation of all policies and laws concerning sexual harassment.
  •  Stand up for gender equality in the workplace.

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