Monday, March 15, 2010

On the Jack Neo sex scandal and sexual harassment in the workplace


Much has been said about Singapore filmmaker Jack Neo’s infidelity recently. But little has been raised in regard to how his behaviour likely constitutes sexual harassment in the workplace, and in particular, the lack of specific laws in Singapore that protect employees from sexual harassment and give employees an avenue for seeking redress.

What is sexual harassment? One definition is that sexual harassment is the “intimidation, bullying or coercion of a sexual nature, or the unwelcome or inappropriate promise of rewards in exchange for sexual favours”. It includes a range of behaviours from seemingly mild transgressions and annoyances to actual sexual abuse or sexual assault.

In the recent Jack Neo scandal, a number of women alleged that he made unwelcome sexual advances on them while they were in his employ or acting in his movies. Such behaviour certainly constitutes sexual harassment.

In this author’s view, every employee (whether female or male) should be protected by law from sexual harassment at the workplace. Furthermore, any employee who is sexually harassed at the workplace deserves an avenue of redress against the harasser. This is especially so if the harasser is in a position of authority over the victim. An employee who has been sexually harassed at the workplace should not be helpless without legal protection to defend herself or himself, and should not have to make the wretched choice of either losing the job or giving in to the unwelcome sexual demands of the harasser. If at all, the harasser is the one who should be penalised.

Now, sexual harassment is illegal in many countries, but unfortunately for Singapore employees, sexual harassment is not specifically illegal in Singapore.

In other countries, employers and harassers are legally responsible (under criminal and civil laws) for sexual harassment against their employees and liable to them for damages (i.e. monetary compensation for loss or injury). Examples of such countries include the United States, United Kingdom, the member states of the European Union, Australia, China, Philippines, India and Israel.

Why are there no specific laws enacted against sexual harassment in Singapore? It seems to this author that there are no good reasons why not, and it is time this lacuna is addressed by the Singapore government. In fact, sexual harassment is a prevalent problem in Singapore. In a 2008 study conducted by AWARE, 54% of the 500 participants surveyed reported having been sexually harassed at work. This includes both men and women.

Victimised employees need protection. And in this author’s personal opinion, it would not do to condone, or to rally around and support a harasser. Laws are vital to ensure that employers take pro-active steps to protect their employees from sexual harassment in the workplace, safeguard their careers and livelihoods, and give them a way to lodge their grievances. Having laws against sexual harassment will benefit not only local employees, but also the significant population of foreigners who come to Singapore to work (and who may otherwise be deterred from coming or harmed by the lack of sexual harassment laws). Certainly, such laws would go a long way in deterring a number of would-be offenders and protecting employees, and reprehensible cases such as the Jack Neo saga could be minimised or averted.

5 comments:

  1. AWARE is the organisation to start the ball rolling towards a law to protect women (and men) in the workplace. JN is the springboard for AWARE to work towards better women (and men) welfare. AWARE letter in ST Forum is very disappointing. Identifying problems but not offering a workable solution (talk to yr colleagues, human resource dept is not effective if the boss is the culprit) does nothing. In words and in deeds please.

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