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Learning about sexual 
harassment and what to do

HONG KONG (Mabuhay) : A family member of the employer asks a foreign domestic worker for a massage. A man watches pornographic movies in his bedroom. Do these acts fall under the category of sexual harassment? Participants at a half-day seminar about sexual harassment, organised by St. John’s Cathedral HIV Education Centre and the Equal Opportunities Commission, were given many such scenarios in which their employers may have breached the sexual harassment ordinance. After the event, held at St. John’s Cathedral on July 8, attendees said that they had a better understanding about sexual harassment and how to deal with it.

Cynthia Lam Cheuk-chi, senior training officer of the Equal Opportunities Commission, explained that the definition of sexual harassment is an unwelcome sexual advance which any reasonable person would know is offensive, humiliating or intimidating to others. This sort of conduct can be manifested as inappropriate physical contact, jokes of a sexual nature, obscene gestures, standing unreasonably close, making a request for sexual favours or pressuring someone for sex.

Lam added that sexual harassment could also be about creating a sexually hostile or intimidating environment, like making offensive jokes of a sexual nature in a group and displaying sexually offensive posters.

In the case of the massage, Lam pointed out that it could be sexual harassment if the request was of a sexual nature and the worker did not want to do it.  She further added that even though the victim did not dare to refuse the harasser’s request and yielded under pressure, given that it is unwelcome sexual conduct, she can still file a complaint.

But a request for a massage is not sexual harassment if it is welcome or part of the duties of the worker who is employed to care for a senior citizen.

In the second scenario, Lam said the man may have already created a sexually hostile environment if he deliberately watched porn films in his bedroom at the time his domestic worker was cleaning it or did not give her a chance to avoid it outside by turning the volume up high.

Over 20 foreign domestic workers joined the seminar. Many shared their past experiences and raised doubts on whether they were being sexually harassed. One said that while changing the diaper of the over 70-year-old father of her employer, he asked her to hold his crotch. She said she just ignored him. She did not feel offended as the man was bedridden and could do no harm. 

However, Lam pointed out that the act is already sexual harassment as the request was not welcomed or solicited, even though the worker did not feel intimidated.

Another worker shared that her ward, an eight-year-old girl, often touched her breasts in front of other family members and commented on their size. She said she felt embarrassed and wondered if it was a sexual harassment.

Lam said this can also be a case of sexual harassment if the employer, upon seeing that, did not correct the girl’s behaviour but teased her and added further offensive comments, thus creating a sexually hostile environment. She added that the ordinance did not specify the gender of the one committing the harassment. 

One worker shared that the husband of her employer once asked to touch her breasts and said she would be given money in return. She was scared and ran out of the room. She later told the man not to do it again and she wanted to work in a harmonious place. Fortunately, he apologised and the unwelcome behaviour stopped.

Lam said that whenever a worker feels she is being sexually harassed, the first response should be to tell that person to stop and add a serious warning like, “I will tell your wife” or “I will make a record of this.”  

She further explained that a written record with details like time and place, the victim’s reaction to the sexual advances and her feelings, is already an important piece of evidence when lodging a complaint with the commission. The court will accept the record as evidence because sexual harassment often happens in isolation and evidence is hard to get. The consistency of the timeline of events from witness statements in connection to the complainant’s claims will also be considered.

Furthermore, it is best for a victim to talk to the employer.  “Your employer has to make the place safe and comfortable for you. This is her duty.” However, she added that establishing a case is not dependent on informing the employer beforehand.

Lam reminded the participants that they had to file complaints with the commission within 12 months of an incident and, if they decide to undertake legal proceedings at the District Court, they need to do so within 24 months. Victimisation, that is, treating an employee less favourably after filing a complaint, is not allowed under the ordinance; an employer cannot fire a foreign domestic worker because she has filed a case against them or a family member for sexual harassment.

Lonie Bagaipo, one of the participants, said she found the talk really informative. “I can now more readily identify what is sexual harassment. I had no such knowledge before. I can explain it to others who face similar problems.” 

She said she also worked in a sexually hostile environment as the husband of her employer sometimes watches pornographic movies in the living room while she is doing the cleaning and once even joked that she should join him. But she opts to ignore him and just keeps an eye on his behaviour at present. “As foreign domestic workers, we have no choice,” she said.

Kaili Chen, a clinical psychology doctoral student working at the centre, said victims of sexual harassment may suffer from psychological problems leading to changes in behaviour, fear of touching, eating disorders, loss of concentration at work, drug or alcohol use and nightmares. People have to be aware if their friends have such problems. 

In helping a friend, listening to their problems, believing in them, letting them release their negative emotions like anger and shame, and encouraging them to speak to a professional are important.

...whenever a worker feels she is being sexually harassed, the first response should be to tell that person to stop and add a serious warning