BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said it is preparing guidelines to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, after a Legislative Council member called for a code of conduct to be introduced in the civil service and private sector.
Minister at PMO, YB Dato Seri Setia Hj Awg Abdul Mokti Hj Mohd Daud, said the guidelines would provide a framework of actions to be taken when cases of sexual harassment are reported in the civil service.
“We want to take a proactive approach to raise awareness amongst the public regarding sexual harassment and the necessary procedures to reduce the risk of it happening,” the minister said during a meeting of the Legislative Council (LegCo) on Thursday.
He said the Public Service Department has received only a limited number of sexual harassment complaints because there was reluctance from victims to come forward.
YB Dato Hj Awg Abdul Mokti added that sexual harassment could be “difficult to define” and hard to monitor because the issue could be “misunderstood or misused to bring someone down”.
The proposed sexual harassment prevention framework would also provide guidance on “misconduct and irresponsible actions such as reporting false evidence”, he said.
Most women have seen or experienced harassment at work
According to a 2016 survey carried out by the Women Graduates Association (PSW), 55 percent of respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, or knew a friend or colleague who had. Eighty-four percent said current legal protections were inadequate.
Pg Hjh Zabaidah Pg Hj Kamaludin, president of the association, said the sample size of the survey was only around 150 people, but that conducting a nationwide survey would provide a better reflection of the scale of the problem.
“Our survey simply showed that we have problems of sexual harassment at the workplace in Brunei. Since 2016 we have been seeking ways to highlight this difficult ‘taboo’ issue.”
She added that the Prime Minister’s Office should involve NGOs in formulating policy around workplace harassment, so that potential solutions would include the perspective of relevant stakeholders.
‘Sexual harassment laws should be enacted’
Pg Zabaidah said while a code of conduct can be useful, focused sexual harassment laws are needed — and should be vigorously enforced — to reduce the prevalence of harassment in the workplace.
“Having specific laws that give options to victims should they wish to proceed and lodge complaints would clearly show that the concerns of female workers anywhere in Brunei are being tended to.
“Those laws should also have procedures that will make it easier for women to lodge a complaint against their own superiors or colleagues,” said the retired lawyer, who previously served as Brunei’s assistant solicitor-general.
While laws exist in the Penal Code, Minor Offences Act and Syariah Penal Code that criminalise abusive, indecent or insulting behaviour, they have broad definitions and do not address abuse of power in the workplace.
Similarly, civil service regulations state that any misconduct has to be reported to a supervisor or senior officer for action to be taken through proper channels.
“Where are the victims supposed to go to when it’s the bosses, colleagues or people with influence responsible for putting them in very uncomfortable situations?,” the PSW president said.
Nur Judy Abdullah, founder of Project Women — an advocacy group that works to educate vulnerable women and girls about gender-based violence — also supported the introduction of dedicated legislation to address sexual harassment.
“It should be drafted similar to the Women and Girls Protection Act, or Children and Young Persons Act,” she said.
“We can adopt a Violence and Harassment Act. This is being advocated by the International Labour Organization, where they lobby governments to accede to the Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment.”
Changing workplace culture
Pg Zabaidah added that like any other law, problems do not disappear overnight when legislation is passed.
“Educating our young men and women to respect each others’ rights would address the issue of sexual harassment in a more sustainable manner. The best way would be for all employers to not turn a blind eye and sweep things under the carpet.”
Nur Judy said it should also be mandatory for all staff to attend sexual harassment seminars on a regular basis.
“While a code of conduct is helpful in defining the standards of professional conduct, it has to be cascaded down the whole organisation so employees will understand the desired behaviour expected from them.
“Workplaces need to promote a culture where employees feel safe and their boundaries are respected. More often than not, employees behaving inappropriately at work are protected rather than reported by colleagues. This has to change.”
She added that victims of sexual harassment must be able to bring up their concerns knowing that they will be heard and taken seriously.
“A clear reporting mechanism or grievance procedure must be in place in all workplaces so that matters on sexual harassment and discrimination can be addressed promptly and efficiently.”
Likewise, there must also be consequences for offenders so that employees know that undesirable behaviours are not tolerated, she added
“We must know the answers to common questions such as, ‘What do I do when I realise I am sexually harassed?’, ‘To whom should I report the incident?’, ‘Will I be protected from any reprisal?, ‘Will I lose my job?
“These are valid questions women are confronted with at work. The narrative changes when the victim is a person with disabilities or comes from the vulnerable, high-risk and minority group.”
Judy said Project Women regularly conducts training and seminars on various forms of violence against women and girls, including sexual harassment. They also host a free monthly webinar called “Legally Speaking”, which this month will discuss sexual harassment in the workplace.