EDITORIAL: Urgent need for harassment laws
WHEN THE US State Department published its latest report on Human Rights practices in Barbados, it went straight for the jugular.
“Human rights activists report that sexual harassment continued to be of serious concern” in Barbados, was the way Washington put it.
And the report seemingly tied that putrid behaviour to the fact that “no law contains penalties specifically for sexual harassment” in Barbados.
Just last week, the issue of sexual harassment was thrust front and centre onto our consciousness in Barbados with the almost non-stop television coverage given in the US to the ouster of Bill O’Reilly. This mega-star of Fox Television News on his nightly show attracted several followers around the world, including in our country.
But he was fired after it was revealed that he and Fox had paid millions in compensation to several current or former female Fox employees. O’Reilly had been accused of propositioning them or otherwise making sexually inappropriate comments about their bodies while they worked with or close to him in New York.
After many years of seemingly ignoring the complaints, 20th Century Fox eventually fired O’Reilly, but gave him a (US) $25 million golden handshake. That thundering action came less than a year after Fox fired the chief executive of its television news unit, Roger Aisles, also for sexually harassing women. He walked away with a lucrative package worth (US) $40 million. In all, Fox paid out (US) $85 million to resolve sexual harassment abuse sandals, (US) $65 million going to the alleged abusers and the rest to the women.
It’s highly unlike that if O’Reilly and Aisles were working in Barbados that would have been their plight. That’s because of the absence of specific laws dealing with the offence or our low insensitivity to the manifestations of sexual harassment in the workplace or classroom.
Clearly, we can learn some important lessons from the appalling Fox case. The first is that financial penalties are no lone deterrent to lecherous behaviour by many men who believe their corporate or governmental powers give them the right to demand sexual favours of women in exchange for a job. It should be against the law.
Secondly, the emergence of social media has given women a powerful voice to get their concerns aired and more should use it.
Next, corporate employers must recognise they have a moral obligation to root out the male culture that encourages such obnoxious conduct.
Just as important, employers must create an atmosphere which encourages women to complain without being victimised.
Finally, trade unions and women’s groups should flex their muscles to secure labour law reforms that address sexual harassment.
Hence the urgency to address the matter. Far too many wives, daughters and nieces are forced to endure this odious behaviour. More than a decade ago, a senior Barbados Workers’ Union official called for the enactment of laws and regulations that would impose penalties on harassers – but nothing has been done. What a pity!