Sexual Harassment as a Special Case of Violence at the Workplace

By Karen Rutter, Mywage manager, global gender specialist

Workplace violence is widespread in South Africa, despite legislation which protects employees. Workplace violence is defined as ‘single or cumulative incidents where employee(s) are physically assaulted or attacked, are emotionally abused, pressurised, harassed or threatened (overtly, covertly, directly, indirectly) in work-related circumstances with the likelihood of impacting on their right to dignity, physical or emotional safety, well-being, work performance or social development.’

It can include matters such as:

  • The misuse of power or position by a superior;
  • Victimisation;
  • Degrading a person in the presence of others by passing remarks about their work performance, their brain power or the lack of it;
  • Any unfair treatment based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion etc.;
  • Physically assaulting an employee;
  • Making unwelcome sexual advances, which of course constitutes sexual harassment.

We focus particularly on sexual harassment, as it is an issue that comes up frequently on our South African Mywage website and has been addressed by the WageIndicator offline campaigns known as Decisions for Life (DFL) and Labour Rights for Women (LRW). All offline activities, workshops, discussions and mini-conferences carried out during these campaigns in South Africa involved the four major trade union confederations, i.e. Cosatu, Fedusa, Nactu and Consawu, as well as Mywage South Africa/WageIndicator and the Labour Research Service (LRS).

What Does the Law Say?

The law in South Africa is very clear about sexual harassment. We have a Code of Good Practice on the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in the Workplace, which is not legally binding but which provides guidelines on how to proceed when a case of sexual harassment arises.

Next, we have the Protection from Harassment Act No. 17 of 2011. This act defines sexual harassment as ‘unwelcome sexual attention from a person who knows or ought reasonably to know that such attention is unwelcome’. Sexual harassment is therefore any unwanted attention of a sexual nature that takes place in the workplace.  

This includes behavior which makes an employee feel uncomfortable such as:

  • Touching
  • Unwelcome sexual jokes
  • Unwanted questions about one’s sex life
  • Whistling
  • Rude gestures
  • Requests for sex
  • Staring at one’s body in an offensive way

One would assume, with this legislation in place, that sexual harassment would be well under control in South African workplaces. But this is not the case. If you look at the current rape statistics, it is apparent that South Africa has developed a notorious reputation for sexual crimes. Each month, several thousand women are raped, as well as young girls and even children. The situation in workplaces is no different.

Many times incidents of sexual harassment or even rape are not reported, for various reasons. Sexual harassment in the workplace is often trivialised. There is a lot of confusion around ‘resisting sexual harassment’ and ‘lacking a sense of humor’, for example. Women also sometimes feel they will be accused of making something out of nothing, and so they keep quiet. This means that is difficult to keep an accurate record of just how many cases of sexual harassment are reported each year.

Campaign to Raise Awareness

Mywage, the four trade union federations and the LRS have recognised this situation, and have for the past several years organised both online and offline awareness strategies. Our activities have stretched beyond just dispensing information on how to deal with sexual harassment, and have included counselling and sharing sessions. These have been held nationwide, in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg and Polokwane.

Online component: the Mywage South Africa website includes a comprehensive section on the labor laws and code of good practice regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. In addition, we have a question and answer section on the topic.

We also, as all WageIndicator sites do, respond to emails from our visitors. Some of those emails deal with sexual harassment, often on a very personal level. In most cases, we are able to refer victims to the appropriate services that are available, providing website addresses, telephone contact details and street addresses. More than that, we are able to provide an ‘ear’, which is important. This is obviously very sensitive work.

WageIndicator Goes Offline Too

Offline component: as mentioned, a number of workshops and mini-conferences have been organised on the theme of sexual harassment. These have been highly successful in terms of raising awareness, and also by providing a secure space for women who have been victims of sexual harassment to come forward and tell their stories.

Often these are very emotional gatherings. We try to involve outside organisations to help with the legal and personal aspects, such as the Women’s Legal Centre, the CCMA (an arbitration organisation) and Rape Crisis (a women-run NGO). Stories that have emerged are often horrifying.

For example:

Allison (surname withheld) was a 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 labor 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.

Nosipho (surname withheld) spoke about how she had been raped in her employer’s office. When she reported this to her HR-department and trade union, she was further abused in that they refused to believe her. She had to face an all-male disciplinary panel, who dismissed her charges. She subsequently left that workplace, and has struggled to find work since.

Based on the mini-conferences and workshops, the trade unions issued a joint pledge to:

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

Participants have also got involved in various activities. In Cape Town, for example, a silent march was held in Salt River, a busy area with many offices, shops and factories. Women from the trade unions and other organisations made placards, and wrapped themselves in sheets to silently protest violence. Placards featured slogans such as: ‘Do Not Touch’ and ‘If I Say No it Means No not Yes.’

The campaign has received coverage in the newspapers, on radio and on television.

In addition and in support of such events we also brought out a 14-page pamphlet which features true and personal experiences that women have had with sexual harassment in the workplace. It also lists current legislation and contact numbers for appropriate organisations. It has proved very popular, and is being distributed at meetings and in workplaces.



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