MEF's Statement Questioning The Need For A Specific Sexual Harassment Bill Is Out Of Touch

The fact of the matter remains that workplace sexual harassment is a constant disruptor of industrial harmony and must be addressed, not shoved under the carpet in hopes that it somehow goes away.

Cover image via Swinburne

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Sexual harassment in Malaysia is an "isolated and manageable" issue?

The Malaysian Employers Federation's (MEF) recent statement questioning Malaysia's need for a specific Sexual Harassment Bill is a disappointing display of not only being out of touch, but a lack of insight into the immense economic gains of this momentous Bill for Malaysian women and other affected minorities.

MEF's statement that "having a specific legislation on sexual harassment would also project a negative image of Malaysia to potential investors as they may mistakenly believe that sexual harassment was a major issue in Malaysia – when in reality it was isolated and manageable".

Let's take stock here — Malaysia's foreign direct investment (FDI) saw a commendable 223% increase in the first half of 2021, with a record RM107.5 billion total investments. In order to make Malaysia even more attractive to investors and support equitable economic recovery through the pandemic, it's essential for workplace sexual harassment to be actionably addressed.

The claim that workplace sexual harassment is "isolated and manageable" is a baseless one as workplace sexual harassment is a systemic, endemic issue and a broader reflection of existing gender inequality in global societies and by extension, in Malaysian society. Statistics from around the world show a range of anywhere between 30% and 80% workplace sexual harassment prevalence.

One in five countries do not have appropriate laws against sexual harassment in employment.

This currently places Malaysia in a global minority of 13.5% of countries that lack essential legislation against sexual harassment.

Having necessary legislation like Malaysia's Sexual Harassment Bill in place will boost international investors' confidence regarding structural and legal elements of women's and worker's rights in Malaysia.

Appropriate legislation also encourages respect towards our Malaysian workforce from international companies coming into the country and in tandem, helps eliminate all forms of discrimination and abuse in the workplace.

With Malaysia meeting global trends and standards towards gender equality, foreign investors would be compelled to further invest locally, once we adopt a robust Sexual Harassment Bill, rather than withdraw investments.

Championing women's equality at workplaces and in society has also consistently represented one of the world's most sizeable economic opportunities, made ever more crucial in light of the COVID-19 pandemic's economic challenges.

McKinsey Global Institute's 2018 report, 'The power of parity: Advancing women's equality in Asia Pacific' states that advancing women's equality in the countries of Asia Pacific could add USD4.5 trillion to their collective annual GDP by 2025, or a 12% increase over the business-as-usual trajectory.

Deloitte Access Economics 2018 Australia-centric survey showed that workplace sexual harassment cost the Australian economy alone, a staggering USD2.6 billion in lost productivity and USD0.9 billion in other financial costs.

Meanwhile, Malaysia-wise, income per capita could grow by 26.2% — implying an average annual income gain of RM9,400 (USD2,250) if all economic barriers are removed for women in Malaysia — according to 'Breaking Barriers: Toward Better Economic Opportunities for Women in Malaysia', a 2019 World Bank report.

Taken together, all these figures go to show that addressing workplace sexual harassment is a critical component of meeting international workplace safety standards, increasing employee productivity, and ultimately supporting Malaysia's aspirations for economic recovery and gender equality, while meeting national and SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) 2030 goals.

Addressing workplace sexual harassment, despite its pervasive nature is possible — through a combination of legislative, corporate training, and industry-specific awareness mechanisms

Primarily, Malaysia must table the long-overdue stand-alone Sexual Harassment Bill in Parliament without any further delay — ignoring this urgent basic dignity and human rights issue gravely impacts Malaysian women, who are disproportionately affected by workplace sexual harassment, plus bearing the burden of its much broader socio-economic impacts.

MEF then states that "existing legislation and regulations are already addressing the problem adequately". This is highly inaccurate as existing legislation and regulations do not broadly cover freelancers, contract staff, interactions between customers/clients, students and varsities, hospital staff, etc.

MEF continues to say, "It is also common for employers to have their own policies and mechanisms to handle complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace as no employer would condone such acts."

Horror stories of inadequate protection for workplace sexual harassment cases in Malaysian workplaces stretch back decades and here are a few reasons why:

Sexual harassment victims are often hesitant to make use of internal policies and mechanisms due to a clear trust deficit with their human resources department (HR). This can take several forms — sexual harassers might be close to HR, hold positions of power, or the particular workplace environment itself can be toxic and one where workplace sexual harassment is normalised while speaking up is actively and implicitly discouraged.

Malaysian workplaces also have no clear non-retaliation policy, nor enforcement. Harassers and their allies have been known to retaliate and alienate workplace sexual harassment victims who report them. Furthermore, victims or witnesses to workplace sexual harassment cannot report anonymously.

This is a good juncture to delve deeper into the multifarious economic costs of failing to adequately address workplace sexual harassment.

Time's Up and the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) new July 2021 study, 'Paying Today and Tomorrow: Charting the Financial Costs of Workplace Sexual Harassment', discovered the following about women who had faced workplace sexual harassment

Workplace sexual harassment remains pervasive: up to 85% of women will experience it over the course of their careers. Almost all women who suffered workplace sexual harassment said they lost some work or were forced out of their jobs altogether.

Most lost responsibilities and pay as retaliation for speaking up — they were docked hours, given poor performance evaluations, or denied bonuses and promotions until they were pushed out or fired. Some remained unemployed for as long as five years.

Many changed careers, starting back at the bottom in jobs that paid much less than what they left behind, according to the study.

For a few, it meant spending even more money on retraining or tuition. Meanwhile, all suffered from lost wages, lost health benefits, and depleted retirement savings as debts piled up.

MEF was also "concerned by a proposal to set up a specific tribunal for complaints on sexual harassment, as the relevant company's internal processes may be bypassed".

Given the exhaustively elaborated weaknesses of internal processes at Malaysian workplaces which fail to address the issue of workplace sexual harassment, it's essential for victims to have an external, impartial tribunal option for redress. This also helps move beyond the "he said, she said" conundrum of injustice that internal mechanisms often boil down to.

MEF felt "such a scenario … could seriously disrupt industrial harmony and must be avoided".

The fact of the matter remains that workplace sexual harassment is a constant disruptor of industrial harmony and must be addressed, not shoved under the carpet in hopes that it somehow goes away.

Additionally, assuring women of workplace safety can also help to increase Malaysia's historically low female labour force participation rate (LFPR) — in 2019, it stood at 55.6% only, compared to 80.9% for men, indeed, one of the lowest in Southeast Asia — through removing all barriers to thriving at work in their industry of choice, including the ever-pervasive stumbling block of workplace sexual harassment.

Passing Malaysia's Sexual Harassment Bill can thus prove pivotal to encourage women's confidence to join and remain in the labour force, especially in a pandemic hit economy.

I cannot emphasise enough that the Sexual Harassment Bill aims to protect women's as well as men's rights and dignity, through a comprehensive definition of sexual harassment, more effective complaint and solutions mechanisms, remedial elements, and penalties

All of this will fill critical gaps in current provisions, while providing a better template for addressing procedures and protections, and most importantly, ensuring that women and vulnerable minorities feel safe at work.

While it's understandable that change, especially to long-standing and unfortunately misogynistic employment culture, is uncomfortable and often unwelcome, it's essential for MEF to take stock of the immense economic and social cost and losses of not addressing workplace sexual harassment.

In the meanwhile, MEF also makes the perfect champion for addressing the many weaknesses in internal reporting mechanisms which deny workplace sexual harassment survivors redress and justice.

This may also become easier once MEF increases the diversity of their own board. According to its website, they currently have only two women out of 14 elected board members.

In conclusion, let's remember that sexual harassment also takes place in non-workplace contexts, thus tabling and passing the Sexual Harassment Bill is a huge overall positive, and additionally, it further enhances Malaysia's status as an attractive investment hub.

A safer country and workplaces are a resounding way to boost Malaysia's economy, rather than the Malaysian Employers Federation's outdated and unfounded fear-mongering.

This story is a personal opinion of the writer and does not reflect the position of SAYS.

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If you or someone you know may be at risk or has experienced sexual abuse or assault, please reach out to these Malaysian organisations:

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Anonymously and confidentially report child sexual abuse content and non-photographic child sexual abuse images with IWF's Reporting Portal.

Earlier, a group of NGOs urged the government and other relevant authorities to prepare a Roadmap to Sexual Harassment Bill in order to protect the safety of students during these unprecedented times:

In recent times, Malaysia has seen a wave of sexual harassment allegations against perpetrators from various industries:

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