A ‘culture of silence’ at work is not OK


Every year on March 8, we celebrate International Women’s Day to recognise the progress we have made in women’s social, economic and political advancement. And every year, we still hear about heart-rending incidents that make us realise that we still have a long way to go towards a safer world for women and girls.

Since the start of this month, we have heard news about sexual violence and harassment being committed by public officials in many countries. The New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, has been accused of sexually harassing two former aides.1 The governor’s behaviour allegedly ranged from touching them inappropriately, to suggesting that they should “play strip poker”. In Australia, several political figures such as the attorney general, and a political adviser have been accused of rape. One accuser said she felt she was being pressured to stay silent to save her career. Another, who claimed that she was raped by the attorney-general when she was 16 years old, took her own life last June after deciding not to file a formal complaint with the police.2

These alleged sexual violence and harassment incidents, if true, would represent revolting examples of exploitation of an unequal relationship by those who are in power. If policymakers responsible for formulating and implementing measures to curb violence and harassment are still exhibiting harmful behaviour themselves, what else can be done?

After several years of negotiation, we finally have the first international standard related to violence and harassment. The 2019 Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (C 190) affirms that everyone has the right to a workplace free from violence and harassment. It includes the first international definition of violence and harassment in the workplace, including gender-based violence. Setting a standard definition of what constitutes violence and harassment may be the first step in drawing an internationally recognised line that one must not cross.

The C 190 will come into force on June 25, with Argentina, Fiji, Namibia and Uruguay having already ratified it. Thailand may consider joining them or following the international standard to improve current domestic measures for the prevention and response to sexual violence and harassment. Some of the important gaps here, however, are a lack of definitive laws, and a culture of silence.

According to Section 16 of the Thai labour protection law, an employer, a chief, a supervisor, or a work inspector is prohibited from committing sexual abuse, harassment or victimisation against an employee. Even though the Thai labour protection law only regulates the vertical relationship between employers and employees, in the case of violence and harassment by persons in the horizontal relationship such as among colleagues, the case can fall under the Penal Code. However, Thai laws lack a definition of what constitutes sexual abuse, harassment or victimisation. This might create uncertainty about what kind of behaviour is prohibited, and prosecutable by law. Some behaviour such as whistling, showing pornography, or telling dirty jokes may not be taken seriously as sexual harassment by the person who displays such behaviour, despite it creating harmful effects on a recipient’s feelings. The affected person may also be unsure if there is any legal recourse to respond against the instigator. This uncertainty can lead to a culture of silence.

In Thailand, apart from such laws, there are several “codes of conduct” adopted by different government organisations to prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. However, the negative impacts of reporting an incidence of violence and harassment against a boss or superior, such as the risk of or losing one’s job or promotion, seems to outweigh the benefits. Reporting a violation of Section 16 of the labour protection law, for example, does not offer any compensation to the employee. Instead, the maximum fine of 20,000 baht is goes into the employee welfare fund. Likewise, the stigma and shame which victims often face do not encourage the reporting of abuses. Victimshaming remarks such as “why did you get drunk at the team party”, or “why did you go into your boss’s office” reinforce the culture of silence.

Sexual harassment may be perpetrated by different individuals, including colleagues, supervisors, subordinates and third parties such as customers or public officials. Whatever form it takes, sexual harassment results in an unsafe and hostile working environment for the person experiencing it, as well as for witnesses and coworkers who might wonder if such occurrences will also happen to them one day. Moreover, the often persistent, “normalised” nature of sexual harassment3 can have a grinding effect and lead to great personal suffering, damage to reputation, loss of dignity and self-esteem on the part of the victims, and victim blaming from family, friends and peers.4

In light of International Women’s Day on March 8, we would like to encourage women who face violence and harassment in the workplace to seek support. The #MeToo movement has told all of us that you are not alone and all you need to do is to take this courageous step and speak out. Incidences like this are far from uncommon. Your voice can end the culture of silence, and help to stop sexual violence and harassment from happening to others.

Boonwara Sumano, PhD, is a senior research fellow at the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI) and N Aneksomboonphon is an independent contributor. Policy analyses from TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays. This article is solely the writers’ view and does not necessarily reflect the stance of the organisations.


  1. New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/27/nyregion/cuomo-charlotte-bennett-sexual-harassment.html
  2. BBC News, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-56178290
  3. Sexual harassment is normalized when seen as a normal, or unquestioned, part of daily work. See: ILO. 2017. Report V (1) Ending violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work, ILC.107/V/1 (Geneva), para. 91.
  4. Gender, Equality and Diversity and ILOAIDS Branch, Conditions of Work and Equality Department International Labour Office,  https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/—dgreports/—gender/documents/briefingnote/wcms_738115.pdf

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