Hong Kong bosses must do much more to tackle sexual harassment at work
Imagine your boss cracking an offensive sexual joke in front of you, or a colleague caressing your hip in the office without your consent. Would you file a report?
According to a recent survey by the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), nearly one in eight Hongkongers (11.8 per cent) reportedly experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past 24 months, but only 14.7 per cent of the victims had made a formal report to their organisation, the EOC or the police.
The survey, which sampled more than 5,000 people aged 18-64, marked the city’s first-ever representative study on sexual harassment involving the general population rather than a specific industry or sector.
The most commonly reported form of workplace sexual harassment was sexually suggestive comments or jokes made in the victim’s presence (61.5 per cent). Some respondents had also been exposed to inappropriate physical contact (22.6 per cent), indecent emails or texts (14.6 per cent), and voyeurism or non-consensual taking of intimate images (8.5 per cent).
Alarmingly, almost half (46.1 per cent) of the victims who did not take any action thought that doing so “would be useless”. They also worried about being labelled a troublemaker (39.7 per cent) and jeopardising their relationship with the harassers (35 per cent).
At the heart of the problem is the fact that sexual harassment often occurs in contexts of a power imbalance, which can deter victims from breaking the silence. The study indicated that there was a larger proportion of victims among interns (25.5per cent) and contract workers (15.9 per cent) than among permanent staff (11.4 per cent). Over 24 per cent of the harassers were the victim’s immediate supervisor or a higher-ranked colleague.
It is crucial, then, for employers to establish a clear and transparent anti-sexual harassment policy and complaint-handling procedure, one that would give employees the confidence of being treated impartially and getting adequate redress after speaking up.
Besides unveiling a trend of underreporting and room for employers to step up their anti-harassment efforts, the survey shattered some of the most widespread myths about sexual harassment, most notably those concerning the victims’ gender. While women (14.6 per cent) were more likely to be victims, a fair proportion of men (8.8 per cent) also fell prey.
The EOC is equally alerted to the higher risks of sexual harassment created by advances in digital technology. The survey revealed that 17.8 per cent of the respondents had reportedly been subject to online sexual harassment in the preceding 24 months.
As remote work, instant messaging and online events become as the new normal, employees may become more vulnerable to sexual harassment in the virtual world.
This takes us back to the role employers can play in combating sexual harassment. In mainland China, the Civil Code imposes a positive duty on organisations to take reasonable precautions to prevent sexual harassment from those who can take advantage of their position and power.
A similar duty exists under the 2010 Equal Opportunity Act in Australia’s State of Victoria, requiring employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sexual harassment as far as possible.
The EOC has recommended that the Government could explore the feasibility of a similar duty on employers under Hong Kong’s Sex Discrimination Ordinance.
It wouldn’t be the first time the ordinance has been strengthened to better protect sexual harassment victims. Thanks to legislative amendments in 2014, customers’ sexual harassment of service providers (for example, caterers, shop assistants and flight attendants) became unlawful. Sexual harassment between people working for different organisations but sharing the same workplace is also prohibited after amendments in 2020. On both counts, the Government took in the EOC’s proposals to fill gaps in the law.
This is not to say that employers are immune from liability. The law already provides that an employer can be vicariously liable for sexual harassment committed by its employees.
The only defence available is where the organisation can show it has taken reasonably practicable steps to prevent the harassment.
Prevention is always better than cure. In its study, the EOC has called on employers of all sizes to provide awareness training to their staff periodically. Employees, as potential witnesses to sexual harassment, should be encouraged to intervene appropriately rather than remain silent bystanders.
Ultimately, everyone needs to recognise that sexual harassment is a violation of our fundamental right to dignity and body autonomy. It should not have any place in our society, and certainly not at work.
Ricky CHU Man-kin
Chairperson, Equal Opportunities Commission
(A version of this article was released online by the South China Morning Post on 13 May 2022.)