Sexual Harassment Law Evolving Globally

By Ellen Pinkos Cobb December 3, 2014

It may be assumed for as long as men and women have shared the workplace, sexual harassment has existed. Laws prohibiting this conduct first came into being relatively recently, with the United States enacting Title VII of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Since then, countries around the world have inserted sexual harassment provisions in criminal codes, labor law, anti-discrimination and equal opportunity statutes, and human rights and violence against women legislation.

Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act made sexual harassment unlawful in the workplace in 1984. The European Union Directive 2002/73/EC on Equal Treatment of Men and Women in Employment, recognizing sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, was passed in 2002. All member states were required to adopt it by 2008.

The passage of legislation continues through the present as more and more countries both acknowledge and combat sexual harassment.

In the past two years, Hong Kong, India, Israel, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Vietnam have passed legislation clamping down on sexual harassment at work.

An amendment to Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance was proposed to protect service providers from sexual harassment by their customers. Under the current legislation, it is unlawful for a service provider to sexually harass a customer in the course of offering or providing goods, facilities or services. However, the legislation does not outlaw sexual harassment of a service provider by a customer. This would protect women (and men) in all the service sectors in Hong Kong, including those who work as nurses, cabin attendants, waitresses and waiters, salespersons and beer promoters. The bill would also outlaw sexual harassment on board Hong Kong registered ships and aircraft while outside Hong Kong.

India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act became effective in 2013 and states that no woman shall be subjected to sexual harassment at any workplace.

In 2014, Israel amended its sexual harassment law to provide that the publication of a photograph, film or recording of a person without consent, including the editing or combination of any of the above, that focuses on a person’s sexuality (provided that such person can be identified) and under the circumstances is likely to degrade or embarrass the person, is considered sexual harassment.

Japan amended its law, effective July 1, 2014, to include new sexual harassment guidelines proposing that employers establish measures to treat the victim employee of the harassment properly, such as by providing consulting with the supervisor or occupational health staff and/or mediation by an independent institution.

Singapore’s parliament passed the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 in March. The act criminalizes, among other things, sexual harassment. The Ministry of Law has stated that the act will cover behavior which includes “sexual harassment within and outside the workplace.” The act provides greater clarity that employees will be statutorily protected from workplace harassment, and can accordingly bring legal action against the perpetrators of such harassment.

South Korea amended its Equal Employment Act in January 2014 to require that personnel classified as “employers,” such as executives and managers, receive sexual harassment prevention training. Previously, these individuals were not covered by the sexual harassment prevention training mandate. The law requires that all businesses in South Korea provide sexual harassment awareness and prevention education to their employees at least once a year.

Amendments to Vietnam’s labor code went into effect in 2013 explicitly prohibiting sexual harassment at the workplace for the first time. However, the law does not provide a clear definition of sexual harassment nor does it obligate employers to take preventive measures or to establish complaint procedures in the workplace.

Ellen Pinkos Cobb, J.D., is a senior regulatory & legal analyst at The Isosceles Group, based in Boston, Mass., and a founding fellow of the U.S. Academy on Workplace Bullying, Mobbing and Abuse. She is the author ofBullying, Violence, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress - Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Issues, a guide to laws and developments from around the world.

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