Formulate laws on harassment, violence at workplace

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Employers, especially from those from the small and medium-sized sector, seem to take non-sexual harassment too lightly, observes Ronald Benjamin.

The convention against violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work was adopted overwhelming, during the 108th session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva.

It was unfortunate that Malaysia had to abstain due to due reasons that do not represent the universal conscience on the subject of harassment and violence especially against those who are vulnerable.

The argument that there is no universal definition on what constitutes harassment is flawed because if one looks from the prism of respect for human dignity, one could derive a universal understanding of what constitutes harassment at the workplace.

Respect for human dignity is not about supporting the particular lifestyle of a group; it is about creating conditions of work that are dignified, that would help the nation in human capital development and productivity.

After some soul-searching back home, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress has come up out to support this convention.

It is an opportune time for the government, the Malaysian Employers Federation and the unions to come up with a universal understanding of what constitutes harassment and violence at the workplace in line with the International Labour Organization convention.

The law to eliminate all forms of harassment and violence should be incorporated in the Employment Act.

According to the objectives of the ILO convention, in Article 1, the term violence and harassment in the world of work refers to a range of unacceptable behaviour and practices or threats – whether it is a single occurrence or repeated – that aim to, result in or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, including gender-based violence and harassment.

There are presently no laws against harassment and violence at the workplace on record except for sexual harassment.

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In 2012, the then Barisan Nasional government amended the Employment Act 1955 and came up with a new part dealing with sexual harassment.

While such a law was crucial to protect the vulnerable from sexual harassment, it has narrowed the term harassment, which was understood from a women’s perspective, while ignoring the broader dimension of harassment that effects men and women due to uneven power structures at the workplace and the contextual aspect of harassment especially in the informal sectors of the economy such as casual employment.

The ILO convention covers workers and other individuals, including employees as defined by national law and practice as well as those working – irrespective of their contractual status – those in training, including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants in all sectors – both in the formal and informal economy and whether in urban and rural areas.

As a human resources practitioner and social activist, I have came across cases where foreign workers were intimidated or manhandled in places like barber shops where Indian workers from India are recruited.

I have also been told by an industrial relations practitioner that a well-known company in Ipoh was trying to force a mentally depressed woman to resign from her position by transferring her to the store, where it is hot and humid and without air conditioning. By doing so, they believe that the women would resign voluntarily.

In the hotel industry, I have seen verbal abuse of interns by senior chefs till the interns had to seek other places to complete their internship.

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To date, employers, especially from those from the small and medium-sized sector, seem to take harassment of this nature lightly since there are no laws to check on abuse that are non-sexual in nature.

Therefore, it is time that the government creates a new chapter in the Employment Act to eliminate harassment and violence at the workplace. This would help the most vulnerable workers such as interns, foreign workers and those who stand up for what is right at the work place.

Employers should ultimately come a with a policy against harassment and violence at the workplace.

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