The Senate this evening approved the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Bill 2017, which Government Senator Verla De Peiza described as a “paradigm shift” in gender relations that should lead to a cultural revolution.
The legislation makes provision for the protection of employees in the public and private sectors from sexual harassment at the workplace, provides a framework for the reporting of sexual harassment cases by employees, and establishes a procedure for the hearing and determination of matters related to sexual harassment.
De Peiza told the Upper House that employees should not have to worry about fending off unwanted advances while on the job, and must be free to focus on productivity.
She was also pleased that victims of sexual harassment could seek redress after a single incident.
“Our understanding of harassment up until this point has been a pattern of behaviour. But does someone have to grab my breast repeatedly before I can complain? Am I not sufficiently of worth that I can carry on without that assault?” an impassioned
De Peiza asked of her colleagues.
De Peiza said that with the majority of harassment offences falling under the Minor Offences Act, this trivialized the victim’s experience, and that the penalty for offences under the Sexual Offences Act was not severe enough and did not address compensation to the victim.
“Under this Act, the victim’s sensibilities are protected to the extent that there can be compensation where the person is found to have endured sexual harassment in the workplace. And that is important because the cheapening of the person has to stop,” she said.
The Democratic Labour Party politician and attorney-at-law spoke extensively of women as victims, but also acknowledged that men also experience harassment in the workplace.
“I speak about the females in the firm understanding that men experience it too. And if you think it is difficult for a woman to speak up about sexual harassment, it has to be difficult for a man in a culture such as ours, a society such as ours, to speak up as well,” she said.
She dismissed concerns that companies may find it difficult to develop a programme and policy against sexual harassment in the workplace, stating that the schedule allowed for a policy statement, which includes a definition of sexual harassment; as well as statements on employment free of sexual harassment, reasonable efforts to ensure that no employee is subject to such harassment, disciplinary measures, guarantees of confidentiality and a right to complain against the company without fear or favour.
“Every single worker in Barbados no longer needs to bow and bend in order to feed their family. How could anyone in good conscience have a difficulty with this legislation? It is about the dignity of the worker,” she said.
At the same time De Peiza issued a stern warning that any employee who makes false accusations against an individual will be penalized.
“So then for the persons who would seek to use a positive piece of legislation for a personal vendetta, think twice,” she said.
Meantime, Senator David Durant called for employers and company executives to be prohibited from retaliating against employees who file complaints of sexual harassment.
“What really concerns me though, is what will prevent a CEO or an employer from releasing a person from their duties six to eight months after they have brought a case and the case has been settled … and the person still remains employed? What will prevent that CEO or employer from just waiting a little time and then saying, ‘I think I have had enough’ and make that person either redundant or find some [reason] to fire them?” Durant asked.