Sexual harassment in the workplace: businesses can be a positive force for change

  • Published: 17 July 2018
  • Author: Jenny Conrad

Sexual harassment scandals have been dominating the media in recent months, forcing organisations to take a good look at their workplace practices and the impact this may have on their workforce. The wide-ranging nature of recent cases only serve to emphasise that this is an issue spanning all countries and industries, from the public sector in Japan to South-East Asian start-ups and Hollywood executives. However, it is of particular relevance to sectors with high proportions of female workers such as the garment industry—75% of garment workers globally are women.

With 40 million people employed in the garment, textile and footwear industry in Asia, this is an issue which companies engaged in this sector cannot afford to ignore. Reputational risks aside, from a business perspective research suggests that, due to its impact on absenteeism, productivity and turnover, sexual harassment has an estimated cost of over $80 million per year to the garment industry in Cambodia.

So what can businesses do to ensure sexual harassment does not take place in their workplaces or their supply chains?

1. Implement a comprehensive policy and management system for preventing and responding to incidences of sexual harassment

While many workplaces may have some form of sexual harassment policy on paper, it is important to ensure that these are more than just an exercise in compliance. When harassers are confident they will not face consequences for their actions this is more likely to occur; therefore ensuring workers clearly understand what actions are not acceptable and the penalties they could face is crucial for preventing issues from happening in the first place. This applies both in individual workplaces and all the way down supply chains.

In Cambodia, research from CARE International suggests that 1 in 3 women workers in garment factories have experienced harassment. To address this, CARE worked in collaboration with factory managers to develop management systems to prevent and respond to sexual harassment. These include an action-focused workplace sexual harassment policy and creation of a dedicated committee made up of workers and managers to respond to complaints. To guarantee effectiveness the policy is complemented by multi-media behaviour change training for workers to ensure they can identify and report cases of sexual harassment.

Initial efforts resulted in a 20% reduction in the perceived risk of sexual harassment among female workers and management reported benefits to their business operations. In the words of one HR manager who helped to develop this policy:

“My most pressing concern is how to make this workplace safe and how to prevent any trouble here because these would affect production …The sexual harassment prevention package has been easily included in our factory program and I have integrated the policy in our factory’s internal rules and punishments. We’ve received many benefits since we started this and I’ve observed that there are virtually no cases of sexual harassment anymore.”

The best practice workplace policy has been praised the Garment Manufacturers Association of Cambodia as an important tool for keeping people safe at work and Cambodia is now being viewed as a leader on preventing sexual harassment in factories, with this model being expanded to other countries in the region.

2. Demonstrate leadership in creating work environments which do not tolerate sexual harassment.

The recent Harvey Weinstein accusations serve to illustrate the grave extent to which a culture of acceptance within an industry can drastically shape the experiences of the women working within it. However, when leadership is shown in denouncing sexual harassment this can lead to more positive work environments for all.

Within individual workplaces, senior management play a key role in fostering such an environment which supports female employees by taking a zero tolerance attitude towards sexual harassment and being outspoken about the importance of this. In the same way, businesses also have the opportunity to influence their industries more widely.

Within the garment industry, retailers are seeing the value of taking a clear stance against sexual harassment within their supply chains. Levi Strauss has been working with CARE in Cambodia for many years and is ensuring its supplier factories are engaged in educating all their workers on what behaviour is acceptable at work. Other brands are now taking an interest in integrating CARE’s workplace sexual harassment policy into their work and even investing in wider campaigns against gender-based violence which focus on their suppliers.

3. Support women at all levels to report incidents by ensuring processes are transparent

The issue of sexual harassment in the workplace is currently so visible because women are starting to publically report their experiences. As mentioned above, effective management systems to deal with complaints and a work environment where such accusations are taken seriously are both important – together they help engender confidence that reports will be handled professionally and with sensitivity.

To take this a step further, publically reporting on numbers of complaints and actions taken will ensure transparency and make a clear public statement that this is an issue that companies are addressing proactively rather than reactively.

An understandable concern is that by publically reporting on such incidents, they are acknowledging the existence of harassment and therefore could receive unwanted negative attention. Many prefer to simply say that this is not a problem for them, afraid of the damage to their reputation as a business or an industry.

However, in the current climate, a company stating that sexual harassment has never taken place in their workplace is unlikely to be taken seriously. To counter this, a company that reports on the number of complaints received and shows it has taken decisive action—both to respond to specific allegations and subsequently take steps prevent these reoccurring—will be viewed more positively by the public and by potential employees.

4. Voice support for global initiatives to prevent violence and harassment at work

A proposed ILO Convention on ending violence and harassment in the workplace offers a more formal mechanism to ensure women in workplaces and supply chains around the globe are protected at work. This would require governments to pursue an integrated approach to address violence and harassment in the world of work, delineating clear responsibilities for public and private employers, workers and their respective organisations, and governments, and joint strategies and collaboration.

A new Convention therefore will push countries to place greater priority on recognising, tackling and remedying violence and harassment at work. It would hold governments and other stakeholders to account and help put an end to impunity.

The proposed Convention will be discussed at the International Labour Conference in June 2018. Businesses can help to influence this by indicating to governments in the countries they source from that they view addressing violence in the workplace as a priority issue and by publically voicing support for the Convention. Companies can also lobby their employer delegate (often a representative from the national business association) who have a vote at the International Labour Conference and delegates in their sourcing countries. More information on the proposed ILO Convention can be found here.

Exclusive to CSR Asia Strategic Partners

As part of the gender equality series of webinar exclusively for Strategic Partners, CSR Asia invited CARE International to share their experience in tackling sexual harassment in global supply chains in a webinar last week. Login to the new Strategic Partner website to view the recording of this webinar. Please note that this website is available to Strategic Partners only.

Look out for the next webinar in this series to be presented by UN Women. More details to come.

About CSR Asia Strategic Partner Program

The CSR Asia Strategic Partner program connects leading companies and NGOs across Asia who share a commitment to sustainable development. If you’re interested to join or for more information, please contact [email protected]