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More than annoying

Released at: 15:54, 21/07/2015

More than annoying

Steps are being taken, but it seems that sexual harassment-free workplaces in Vietnam are still some way off.

by Le Diem

“You must accept having an affair with the boss and ensure it creates no problems for his family or yours.” These words in a recruitment email for an accountant position posted on many forums and social websites recently shocked the public with its offensive “job description”.

Such “requirements”, though, are all too common. After the furor the email caused many women said they were also expected to have affairs with senior or male colleagues as part of their job. Workplace sexual harassment is rife in Vietnam. In addition to having expectations clearly laid out, there are many other instances of sexual harassment that are simply not recognized as such. The first-ever code to combat sexual harassment at work in Vietnam was released recently, which is a start at least.

In many parts of the world, sexual harassment is recognized as a serious problem facing women in the workplace. Recent research by the International Labor Organization (ILO) provided a multitude of examples. In Germany, 93 per cent of working women has been victims of sexual harassment. Nearly six out of ten nurses in Australia have experienced sexual harassment. In the US, over 50 per cent of women employees have been sexually harassed at some point. In India, a woman is sexually harassed every 12 minutes. In China, about 20 per cent of 1,837 female respondents to a survey had experienced sexual harassment at work. In Singapore, 54.4 per cent of 500 respondents to a survey had experienced some form of sexual harassment. It’s clearly a global problem.

In Vietnam, meanwhile, official figures on sexual harassment are not readily available. Anecdotal evidence, however, suggests that it’s widespread, with the majority of victims being women aged between 18 and 30.

Four articles concerning sexual harassment were added to the Labor Code adopted by the National Assembly in 2012. Considered a significant step towards helping to address the issue, the articles nonetheless had no effect on outlawing sexual harassment and protecting the victims, as they failed to provide a clear definition of what constitutes sexual harassment.

As sexual harassment continues unabated, the new code was released recently by the Ministry of Labor, Invalids, and Social Affairs (MoLISA) and the ILO in Vietnam, to help address legal inadequacies in curbing its occurrence, according to Mr. Ha Dinh Bon, head of MoLISA’s Legislation Department.

Under the new code, sexual harassment at the workplaces includes both physical contact and verbal and non-verbal acts. Verbal sexual harassment can be committed in the form of words, expressions, comments, suggestions, and invitations that imply or are related to sex. Non-verbal sexual harassment is using gestures, looks, and body movements, as well as sending images, text messages, and emails. The concept of the “workplace” covers not only company offices factory floors but also other places where business-related activities are conducted, such as seminars, training courses, business trips, parties and meals, and telephone contact, among others.

The code aims at providing employers, employees, trade unions, and authorities with guidance on what sexual harassment at work is, how it can be prevented, and what action should be taken when it does happen, Mr. Bon said. He added that the code also serves as a foundation for employers to prepare policies or regulations that help promote a healthy and secure working environment.

After the code was released it attracted a lot of attention from both employers and employees. Many admitted that they only realized what sexual harassment might be after reading the code.

Mr. Xuan Thanh, a marketing manager, said that leering at women and having risqué conversations were quite common in his office. “As the Vietnamese phrase says, ‘As a flower is to be picked, a woman is to be flirted with’,” he said. “Flirting with a woman is normal and only done for fun and to relieve stress.”

Ms. Lan Phuong, an administrative officer, said such behavior was also common at her company and the where many of her friends work as well. Usually its men, but sometimes it’s women who start or respond to sexual jokes and innuendo. “I think it’s now part of ‘office culture’ as it occurs in many workplaces,” she said. “I had always thought that sexual harassment was only intentional physical contact or rape.”

In many cases it’s not just words and gestures made in “fun”. Victims are harassed to such a point that it negatively affects their job performance and employers also lose out from sexual harassment in the workplace, according to Ms. Lisa Wong from the ILO.

Ms. Ngan Ha, a sales executive, usually attracts flirtatious comments from her customers, including married men. She receives a lot messages or invitations from them to dinner or to just hangout after work. It’s not only an annoyance but also causes trouble between her and her husband. Sometimes customers say straightforwardly that a night out, or more, will see her company win a contract. When she refuses, they call her boss and complain about her “rude attitude”. “My boss doesn’t want to hear my perspective,” she said. “He says it is part of the pressure of work and if I can’t handle it then I should quit.”

Many women in Ms. Ha’s position have indeed quit their jobs or been denied promotions after refusing such advances. Others, though, suffer through it because they can’t be sure of finding another job, especially those who work in factories or are waitresses at restaurants. “It’s not easy to get a job with only a secondary school education,” said Ms. Thu Huong, who works at a textile factory. “I have three kids to support. So although my manager sometimes makes risqué comments or even touches me, as long as he doesn’t insist on sex then I just deal with it.”

With the new code, Ms. Huong and other victims have become more aware of what constitutes sexual harassment and found the courage to talk about their experiences.

While the code provides a clear definition of sexual harassment, it doesn’t mention any punishment. MoLISA, though, is working on a decree, to be issued next year Mr. Bon said, which details the penalties people found guilty of sexual harassment at the workplace will be subject to.

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