Sexual harassment at work under the spotlight

The matter 'will need to be addressed systematically in the review and reform of labour law,' according to a Helen Suzman Foundation researcher.

Major employers are failing to police sexual harassment at work because they applied a flawed understanding of its very nature, says legal researcher Lee-Anne Germanos of the Helen Suzman Foundation.

In a series of legal briefs, Germanos discussed the roots of society’s ineptitude at policing sexual crimes by looking at how it is dealt with in the criminal justice system as well as in the workplace.

Referring to recently reported cases of sexual harassment in institutions such as the African Union, the United Nations and South Africa’s human rights nongovernmental organisation Equal Education (EE), her criticism was that there was not enough context and understanding on sexual harassment.

A panel of inquiry was appointed by EE last year to investigate a series of sexual crime allegations exposed by the Mail and Guardian against EE senior staff members, including general secretary Tshepo Motsepe.

The inquiry cleared all of the accused but had adverse findings against the EE, including that Motsepe acted inappropriately.

“The panel of enquiry appointed to investigate Equal Education’s alleged culture of sexual harassment yielded split reports, and no findings were made,” notes Germanos.

“A legalistic approach was adopted by the panellists who produced the majority report.

“The anonymity of the victims was used as the sole ground for dismissing their complaints. One criticism of this approach is that it displays a misunderstanding of the nature of sexual harassment and the power dynamics which invariably accompany it.

“In fact, this outcome raises all the tensions and contradictions which will need to be addressed systematically in the review and reform of labour law.”

Germanos lamented the subjective manner in which society has dealt with sexual offences, where the onus of proof is on the victim.

She says sexual violence has been historically viewed as a crime of passion and lust rather than an act of violence.

In her legal brief on sexual harassment, Germanos argues that sexual attention in the workplace has enjoyed a degree of acceptibility until it is arbitrarily considered untoward.

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