BOONWARA SUMANO CHENPHUENGPAWN
The United Nations’ survey in 2019 found that one third of UN staff and contractors have experienced sexual harassment over the past two years, and that two thirds of those offenders were men.
Such statistics are quite alarming, as the UN is a top promoter of equality and human rights.
Even more worrying are the findings that only 17% of those eligible responded to the survey, and that one third of sexual harassment survivors actually took action against their offenders.
As remarked by Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, “We still have a long way to go before we are able to openly discuss sexual harassment.”
Such remarks can also be applied to Thailand.
In 2002, the Suan Dusit Poll conducted a survey of 1,153 women (470 civil servants, 258 state-owned enterprises, 132 in financial banks and 293 employees in private companies) in Bangkok and its surrounding areas, and found that 22.9% of respondents had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, mostly in the form of sexual jokes and inappropriate touching.
The offenders ranged from their superiors (38.8%) to coworkers (32.03%) and third parties such as clients and visitors (29.45%).
In Thailand, Section 397 of the Criminal Code covers the range of what could be considered “sexual harassment” in a very broad sense. However, a lack of definition leaves this provision open to interpretation.
In a male-dominated society like Thailand where many people are not aware of the concept of sexual harassment, it is highly likely that some actions could be overlooked as being defined as “sexual harassment” under the Criminal Code.
Moreover Section 16 of the Labour Protection Act 1998 stipulates that “No employer, a person in charge, supervisor or work inspector shall commit sexual abuse, harassment or nuisance against an employee.”
Although the law protects workers of all genders from sexual harassment, what is considered sexual harassment or a nuisance remains unclear. These words are up for interpretation.
Additionally, there are some gaps in the scope of the coverage, as the 1998 Labour Protection Act does not cover sexual harassment that happens in a horizontal relationship, such as by colleagues or third parties like customers and state officers.
In reality, it is possible that an employer may force an employee to be in a position where they could be sexual harassed by a customer or an officer in return for more sales of favourable treatment.
In June 2019, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) introduced a new convention and an accompanying recommendation relating to violence and harassment in the workplace. The Violence and Harassment Convention and Violence and Harassment Recommendation extend protection beyond just traditional workers and employees to persons in training, interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, job-seekers and job applicants.
Violence and harassment involving third parties are also included. Recognising the right of everyone to be free from violence and harassment in workplace, the international standard covers workrelated places such as washing or changing facilities, training, events, work-related trips, communications, accommodation provided by employers, and commutes to and from work.
Hence, the Thai laws have to be revised to catch up with the new international standard. Promoting awareness about sexual harassment is also an urgent task. In Thai culture, comments about another colleagues’ body parts like breasts or buttocks may be seen only as jokes. Inappropriate stares and whistles towards women are still regarded by many as normal. However, these behaviours are not acceptable, as they can put workers in a state of mental unease and stress, which can lead to lower productivity at work or even the resignation to avoid such experiences.
Another way to reduce the chance of sexual harassment is to promote gender equality at work by placing more women in managerial and executive positions. Situations where sexual favours are requested in return for a pay raise, promotion, or extension of employment contract are less likely to happen if the people in charge of female employees are also women. Hostile environments can become more friendly, if women have the power to control those environments.
Having a better understanding of sexual harassment in the workplace and creating an environment where everyone can work safely, can result in greater efficiency, higher revenue for employers and more productivity for the nation.
As everyone can benefit from such improvements, all parties should get involved to properly address the sexual harassment issue in Thailand. The government, businesses and civil society must work together to guarantee that the workplace is free from sexual harassment, for everyone.
Boonwara Sumano Chenphuengpawn, PhD, is research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and N Aneksomboonphon is an independent contributor. Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post every other Wednesday.
First Published: Bangkok Post Wednesday, July 24, 2019