With a new bill to deal with the controversial issue of sexual harassment in the workplace likely to become law later this year, there is still no national consensus on the proposed legislation.
This was glaringly obvious during a panel discussion hosted by the Men’s Health Group at the Maurice Byer Polyclinic in St Peter Monday night at which Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Tourism Senator Irene Sandiford-Garner reported that “a new amended draft bill is now available, and the Minister of Labour [Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo] is pushing to have the legislation in place by September, as it is important to her”.
Sandiford-Garner, Barbados’ representative on the Inter-American Commission on Women, also pointed out that the Act was gender-neutral.
However, while acknowledging that sexual harassment could happen to anyone, attorney-at-law Roseann Richards, who was a member of the panel, said reporting of such issues remained a problem.
“Men are afraid to come forward because of how they think they will look in the eyes of their peers if they accuse a woman of harassing them on the job, and women are afraid of being dismissed or victimized,” the attorney said.
Former Chairman of the Men’s Education and Support Association (MESA) Ralph Boyce also expressed concern that “there are certain behaviours that are cultural norms – simple friendly interaction between men and women – and it seems as though we are allowing international agencies to foist their views on us by referring to them in this manner”.
However, Joy Ann Inniss of the umbrella Congress of Trade Unions and Staff Associations of Barbados (CTUSAB) said, “we must remember that we are now competing in a global market”, and as such there were international trade and labour rules pertaining to sexual harassment, which is considered a violation of human rights.
The labour representative also suggested that sexual harassment could do untold harm to an individual “in terms of absenteeism, lack of productivity, and high worker turnover.
“It may even result in mental illness,” she added.
One of the major issues raised was that of false accusations, which members of the audience agreed could ruin an alleged perpetrator’s reputation for life.
However, it was pointed out that the draft bill stipulates that “a person who makes a false complaint is guilty of an offence and is liable to a fine of $10,000 or a 12-month term of imprisonment or both”, with the panellists agreeing that this penalty could be increased depending on the circumstances of the case.
The law also makes provision for cases to be dismissed if there is insufficient evidence, or if the complaint is deemed “frivolous”.
Complainants are given a three-month window in which to report incidents, but presently there is no time limit for action by the employer once the perpetrator is found guilty.
Boyce called for further discussion on the updated draft bill, while Richards said: “I believe once the law is passed, some of the provisions will be amended based on the cases presented before it.” She however suggested that further consideration needed to be given to people with disabilities, “who are being taken advantage of in the workplace on a regular basis, as well as contract workers and migrant workers, including non-nationals, who are subject to the same problems”.