Sexual harassment in the era of COVID-19 in Ghana: Is the law enough?
Gender Expert, Ghana Trades Union
As the world continues to battle with the devastating effects of the novel coronavirus on economies and the lives of vulnerable workers, UN Women declared gender-based violence a shadow pandemic that is threatening the lives and existence of vulnerable groups—especially women and children. As disturbing reports about the upsurge in gender-based violence garnered attention from the world, there is silence on its perpetration in the workplace where women are especially vulnerable. Also, while there continues to be appreciable human and material resources available to address domestic violence in Ghana, not enough systems are in place to protect women workers against sexual harassment and other forms of violence in the workplace.
Several research findings and reports show the importance of developing responsive mechanisms on gender-based violence as part of the recovery and containment measures of the pandemic. However, there has been no research to ascertain the increase in the vulnerability of women workers to sexual harassment and GBV at workplaces.
Sexual harassment is a type of Occupational Safety and Health defined as a form of sex discrimination characterized by unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that tends to create a hostile or offensive work environment.
The introduction of different work systems in dealing with the fallouts of the pandemic by employers including shift systems, rationing and work from home have left some victims with their abusers or harassers. In other instances, abusers and harassers in positions of power could manipulate to get victims in shifts that allow them to carry out their inhumane acts. With the absence of legislations and policies in several countries to deal with workplace violence and sexual harassment, workers remain at the mercy of their perpetrators and abusers who are mostly in positions of power, and Ghana is no exception.
Until the adoption of the new ILO Convention 190 on eliminating violence and sexual harassment at the workplace, workers relied on cumbersome legislative processes and interpretations to deal with cases of workplace violence and sexual harassment.
Researchers like Heather McLaughlin have posited in the past that “a really large percentage of women quit their jobs” due to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is an act most women make the difficult choice of keeping silent about for fear of losing their jobs or being alienated in the workplace.
Any protection from existing legislations?
Notably, this pandemic has left most women workers stranded with their harassers on shifts while others are stuck through uncertain and increased demands of ‘quid pro quo’ - a favor or advantage granted in return for something related to unequal power relations between the harasser and the victim. Quite often for majority of these vulnerable women, a refusal to succumb to the sexual advances mean a reason to be put up for termination, redundancy or lay off in moments when several organizations are undergoing restructuring, re-organizations or closure.
Section 175 of the Ghana Labour Act 2003 (651) interprets sexual harassment as “any unwelcome, offensive or importunate sexual advances or request made by an employer or superior officer or a co-worker, whether the worker is a man or woman;” However, the law does not offer enough practical and sustainable protection for victims of the menace.
Similarly, as provided for in Section 63 (3) b) of the Act, a worker’s employment is deemed to be unfairly terminated if “the employer has failed to take action on repeated complaints of sexual harassment of the worker at the work place.” Evidence has shown that many women refuse to take advantage of this provision for fear of being blacklisted for future references from the organization or being labeled as the black sheep.
While there are no explicit parts or sections that comprehensively address sexual harassment, women workers may fall on provisions in section 9 (c) on the duties of employers that enjoins them to “take all practicable steps to ensure that the worker is free from risk of personal injury or damage to his or her health during and in the course of the worker’s employment or while lawfully on the employer’s premises.” Other provisions include section 118 (1) which stresses on “…works under satisfactory, safe and healthy conditions…” and section 119 (1) which allows workers to remove “…themselves from imminent and serious danger to his or her life, safety or health…” and protection to their remunerations in section 119 (2).
As noted earlier, existing legal protections and workplace initiatives do not adequately address the scale and seriousness of sexual harassment. Ghana needs a national workplace policy backed by the ratification of ILO C190 that puts all protective responsibility on employers and not victims. Since addressing issues of sexual harassment increases productivity and promotes respect for human dignity, we need stricter measures such as the establishment of structures to protect victims and clearer punitive measures to deal with this increasing trend of workplace gender-based discrimination. Similarly, the on-going review of the Labour Act 2003 (651) must reflect full commitments towards making the workplace safe from sexual harassment.
Just like the #MeToo gave voice to survivors and victims, other strategic and creative methods should be adopted to create a common platform that supports advocacy and laws in dealing with the menace. These measures must be grounded in what women want, and that means listening to the voices of victims and advocates.
As Trade Unions have shown the way with sexual harassment clauses in collective agreements, government must work closely with unions and businesses to develop policies and provisions in employee handbooks that address sexual harassment. The COVID-19 pandemic has lifted the veil of silence that victims of workplace sexual harassment suffer. From a human rights perspective, let us not standby idly as some women continue to suffer in silence. From an economic perspective, a sexually harassed woman means a less productive worker—why would any employer stand by and watch that happen?
Bashiratu Kamal is the Gender Equality Officer for the General Agricultural Workers Union of Trades Union Congress-Ghana. She is a feminist, a gender and labor expert who believes in equality and equity of all persons. She is a graduate student at the Penn State University majoring in Labor & Global Workers Rights. If you wish to share a story or reach her Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: bkamal20002000