Treading a "fine line' on sexual harassment

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Experts and workers say imposing fines without a legally accepted definition of the violation opens new decree to abuse

Female workers and their colleagues coat ceramic tiles with paint at the Quang Minh Ceramics Porcelain Co. factory in Bat Trang village on the outskirts of Hanoi. Critics say a proposed decree to penalize sexual harassment at the workplace will be difficult to enforce given that that there is no clear definition of the act yet.

"No way!"

Dinh Thi Kim Chi could not help laughing when she heard that a fine of VND75 million (US$3,600) has been proposed for sexual harassment at the workplace.

"My colleagues and I joke about sex all the time. If it is considered verbal sexual harassment, not a single person in my office would escape the fine," said the 50-year-old employee of an advertisement company in Ho Chi Minh City.

"All of us know it's just for fun, although someone can be embarrassed sometimes when they are targeted by the jokes," she added.

However, experts say that authorities would find it difficult to fine people like Chi and her colleagues even if the amended Labor Code set to take effect in May includes workplace sexual harassment for the first time.

The Ministry of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs is currently polling public opinion on a draft decree that stipulates fines for violations mentioned in the Labor Code.

The provision in the draft decree about fines against sexual harassment at the workplace has attracted a lot of adverse comments because the law does not define what sexual harassment is.

Dang Duc San, director of the Legal Department under the labor ministry, admitted that the draft decree also fails to describe sexual harassment at the workplace.

"Currently, international organizations have a definition and the International Labor Organization (ILO) has requested Vietnam to include it in the law. The drafters did propose some definitions but there have been some obstacles to accepting them," he told Vietweek.

It would be difficult for some of the definitions to be applied in Vietnam because "some behaviors are inappropriate," he said, without elaborating.

"Because there is no detailed definition [of sexual harassment], we fixed the fines based on the law on violations in the labor sector," he said, adding that the fine will be between VND50 million and VND75 million for individuals and double that for organizations.

San said a conference held next month would discuss the draft decree further.

Hasty move

As things stand, the proposed fines against sexual harassment at the workplace can be abused, experts say. 

Nguyen Thi Dieu Hong of the Gender Equality Department under the labor ministry said she was surprised by the proposed fine. This is something that should have been instituted after careful consideration, she said.

"Before issuing fines [against sexual harassment at the workplace], other countries define the violation and recommend that employers have office rules and punishments for such offences," she told Vietweek.

"Sometimes, such acts can be stopped by just a censure. There's no need to bring the case to trial or issue a fine... Now, Vietnam is proposing a fine without going through such steps," she said.

Hong said the fine can be too lenient or too harsh depending on specific cases because there is no definition that classifies the degree of sexual harassment.

"A fine of VND75 million will be too strict for verbal sexual harassment, but it can be too lenient for forced sex," she said.

Lawyer Tran Dinh Trien of Hanoi-based Vi Dan (For People) Law Firm said some people can abuse the decree.

"If there are no detailed descriptions of the violation, people can abuse the law to denounce others in retaliation for other personal conflicts. It can lead to disorder and lack of solidarity at the workplace," he said.

Trien said there should also be regulations requiring the formulation and dissemination of ethical norms for civil servants as well as corporate employees," he added.

Trinh Hoa Binh of the Institute of Sociology agreed with the need to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace despite the difficulties in defining the act in Vietnam. 

"There should be careful considerations of socio-cultural aspects before defining the act of sexual harassment. For instance, we don't have the custom of hugging and kissing, but some others do, so it would be unreasonable to fine foreigners for following their customs in Vietnam," he said.

A recent study released by ILO found that sexual harassment at the workplace is common in Vietnam, with most cases happening in the healthcare and education sectors.

According to the report, more than 78 percent of victims of sexual harassment at the workplace are women between 18 and 30 years.

"In Vietnam, statistics and official figures on sexual harassment are not available. However, available information from mass media shows that sexual harassment is widespread at workplaces. The majority of the victims are women," it said.

The report found that victims of sexual harassment at work have to suffer both direct and indirect effects, including health, economic, social, psychological effects and difficulties in career development.

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Meanwhile, enterprises and organizations, units where sexual harassment continually takes place have to bear direct and indirect consequences, including reduction in productivity and profit, damage to the own reputation, negative impacts on business relationships, loss of human resources and increasing costs, the report said.

It said women who suffer sexual harassment have to encounter negative attitudes from other people and the society as a whole, in particular their own families.

The report quoted a female victim of sexual harassment as saying: "I was under great stress at work, had to try a lot to continue my job. The worst thing is that every time I make love with my husband, I am obsessed by the male colleague, so I'm scared of my husband. I wonder if he does harassment to his female colleagues.

"Gradually, my fear of men keeps growing, I cannot live with this."

WHAT IS SEXUAL HARASSMENT?

The International Labor Organization defines sexual harassment as "Any act of a sexual nature and other conduct based on sex or gender stereotypes by a person, including verbal, non-verbal, or visual deeds, gestures and actions aimed at another person who does not desire and/or feels discomfort with such an act. Such act can be humiliating conduct, creating a problem on safety and health of or causing disadvantages to the receiver relating to benefits from his/her employment, including recruitment and promotion or creating a hostile working environment.

It defines workplace as "Any location where the acts of harassment occur and where the employee is situated because of the working position he/she is assuming or for his/her performance of the assigned tasks.

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