Sexual harassment in the workplace is unfortunately quite commonplace. It does not have to be overt; it can be subtle, insidious, and cause a great deal of distress to the victim.
There is no specific legislation in Singapore to deal with sexual harassment in the workplace. However, victims are protected under the Protection from Harassment Act 2014 (POHA).
What are the provisions of the Protection from Harassment Act?
The Protection from Harassment Act deals with all types of harassment and inappropriate behaviour, irrespective of location.
The POHA covers threatening, insulting, or abusive behaviour, communications, or publications which cause alarm, distress, or harassment to the victim.
Sexual harassment can take many different forms
Sexual harassment can be physical or non-physical, verbal, or visual.
Examples of non-physical harassment include lewd comments or gestures, verbal abuse, or inappropriate language. These may not be directed at the victim but take place in their presence with explicit reference to them, and with the intent to cause distress.
Making remarks in a jokey or humorous context can still constitute non-physical harassment. Using a defence of ‘I was only joking’ is not a defence at all for verbal abuse or inappropriate language and lewd gestures.
Taking the professional working relationship into personal territory is also non-physical harassment. This might include a manager asking a worker about their private life, personal relationships, or issuing inappropriate invitations.
Non-physical harassment extends beyond the confines of the physical workspace and includes activity on social media platforms.
Voyeurism and up-skirt photos are also examples of non-physical harassment.
Physical harassment includes deliberate touching or brushing against someone, actual molestation, or an outrage of modesty. It also includes stalking, where there is no actual physical contact between the victim and the perpetrator. It includes repeatedly contacting the victim by email or message, hanging around the workplace or their home, or following the victim.
Remedies for workplace harassment
Victims of sexual harassment in the workplace can expect their employer to intervene and take appropriate steps to manage the situation. They also have remedies available to them in civil and criminal law.
Action from the employer
Many victims of workplace harassment suffer in silence, particularly if they are not alone, and there is a culture of this behaviour within the organisation. The only option is seemingly to find another job.
However, an employer has a duty of care to their workers, so the matter should be raised with management and investigated in line with proper employment policies and procedures.
If the employer doesn’t deal with the issue and the victim feels forced to leave work or suffers extended periods of sick leave or absence, they may have a case against their employer under employment laws.
The POHA doesn’t impose a direct legal duty on employers to keep the workplace free of sexual harassment. However, there is a general obligation under the Ministry of Manpower guidelines to protect employees against workplace harassment.
Employers should have proactive policies in place and, where necessary, actively implement measures to keep the workplace safe. The Tripartite Advisory on Managing Workplace Harassment helps with practical guidance for employers to prevent and manage harassment and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Remedies in criminal law
Both the Penal Code and the Protection from Harassment Act offer criminal remedies to a victim of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Physical harassment offences
Physical offences are punishable under Section 3 of the POHA or the Penal Code.
Section 354 of the Penal Code carries a prison punishment of up to three years, a fine, caning, or any combination of these penalties for outrage of modesty offences.
For offences of rape, Sections 375 and 376 of the Penal Code stipulates a prison term of up to twenty years, a fine, and caning or a combination of these.
Non-physical harassment offences
Section 3 of the POHA states that a person who deliberately causes harassment, alarm, or distress by using threatening, abusive, or insulting behaviour, communication, or publication which identifies the victim is guilty of an offence.
Offences under Section 3 carry a maximum prison term of six months or a fine no higher than S$5,000, or both.
Section 4 of the POHA covers behaviour likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress, and this carries a maximum fine of S$5,000 on conviction.
Section 7 of the POHA criminalises stalking with punishment including a fine of up to S$5,000 and a twelve-month prison term, or both.
Section 377BB of the Penal Code covers voyeurism with guilty parties liable for a prison term of up to two years, a fine, caning, or any combination of these three penalties.
Remedies in civil law
Section 11 of the POHA permits victims of certain types of harassment to bring civil actions and claim monetary compensation. These include:
- Section 3 – intentionally causing harassment, alarm, or distress.
- Section 4 – behaviour that is likely to cause the victim harassment, alarm, or distress.
- Section 5 – behaviour intended to lead the victim to believe that they will be subjected to violence.
- Section 7 – unlawful stalking.
The court is empowered to award damages if they think it is just and equitable.
Final thoughts on sexual harassment in the workplace
It’s probably impossible to completely eradicate sexual harassment in the workplace. Fortunately, a raft of measures and remedies in both civil and criminal law in Singapore offer recompense and compensation to a victim.
It can be challenging for some women to talk about incidences of sexual harassment, but it is essential that victims of sexual harassment in the workplace take independent legal advice at the earliest opportunity. An experienced lawyer will be able to protect their position, ensure the right offences are prosecuted, and take steps to guarantee the employer does not compromise their working life or career.
Frequently asked questions
Is workplace harassment, by definition, confined to the workplace?
Workplace harassment does not have to occur in the working environment’s physical confines. It can happen across social media outside work, on business trips, and other work-related functions.
What is the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women?
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international legal instrument requiring countries to commit to eliminating discrimination, and to actively promote equal rights for women and girls.
The Singaporean Government is a signatory to the Convention, which defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexually determined behaviour…including physical contact and advances, sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography and sexual demands, whether by words or actions”.
Can victims of workplace sexual harassment claim monetary compensation?
There may be a claim for financial compensation for loss of earnings and damage to employment prospects if the victim chooses to pursue a case against their employer for failing to deal with workplace sexual harassment. This is quite distinct from any remedies arising from a civil or criminal prosecution and concerns the employer’s response rather than the perpetrator.
Section 359 of the Criminal Procedure Code does empower the court to order a convicted offender to pay monetary compensation to the victim. The court is likely to order this if it’s easy to determine an appropriate amount, and the order would not cause undue financial hardship on the offender.
What is a protection order?
Section 12 of the POHA allows victims of sexual harassment in the workplace to apply for a protection order against a perpetrator who commits an offence under the Act.
A protection order can prohibit further acts of harassment from the perpetrator, prevent any harassing communication, and refer the victim to mediation or counselling.
The victim must be able to show that the perpetrator has committed one of the offences under the POHA, and they are likely to commit future acts of harassment.
Can the victim of an offence of sexual harassment in the workplace be able to claim both civil and criminal remedies?
Some offences of harassment can be prosecuted under both civil and criminal law. An experienced lawyer can advise which route is the best option for the victim.
Who is TAFEP?
Some cases of sexual harassment in the workplace fall short of the legal requirements for prosecution under either civil or criminal law. In these situations, the employee can approach the Tripartite Alliance for Fair and Progressive Employment Practices (TAFEP), which liaises with the employer and the employee to help manage the case and prevent future incidents. TAFEP also offers advice to employees.