In December 2017, the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Act 2017 was proclaimed. Under the Act, every employer must ensure that within six months of its commencement, they provide a clearly articulated, written policy statement against sexual harassment in the workplace.
Acting Chief Labour Officer (CLO), Victor Felix, explained the provisions in the Act in greater detail, during an interview with the Barbados Government Information Service.
The top labour official stated that sexual harassment, under the legislation, included “the use of sexually suggestive words, comments, jokes, gestures or actions that annoy, alarm or abuse a person”. Also included, he pointed out, were “the initiation of unwanted physical contact, unwelcome sexual advances or requests”.
Focusing on the main features of the Act of which employers and employees should be aware, Mr. Felix pointed out that all employers must establish and communicate a policy on sexual harassment to employees.
“The Sexual Harassment Act provides a framework for the reporting and lodging of complaints; and provides for the investigation, hearing and determination of sexual harassment complaints. The Act also provides for strict confidentiality, except to the extent necessary for the purposes of the Act,” he noted.
The CLO stated that a schedule was set out under the Act which detailed the elements that must be included in the respective workplace policy. Under this schedule, he explained, sexual harassment must be defined “substantially the same as the definition given under the Act”.
He added that there must be a statement of intent from the employer and the steps to be taken if there is a complaint of sexual harassment.
Mr. Felix gave the assurance that his department stood ready to assist employers who might have difficulty crafting their own policies. “Employees don’t need to worry…they should use the schedule [when creating their policy] and [do a checklist against it] to ensure that every item in the schedule to the Act, is covered in your policy,” he advised.
“Additionally, the Labour Department is always available for assistance and discussions in these matters and we think that the trade unions and professional associations can be extremely helpful to their membership in working with them in the formulation of the policy in accordance with the legislation,” the CLO further noted.
As with any legislation, contravention of the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Act will result in the imposition of penalties.
“When we think about penalties, I want to look at it in three different areas. If you are talking about penalties regarding the act of sexual harassment, the Chief Labour Officer, at the early level, or if it reaches the Tribunal, our first role is to endeavour to resolve the complaint reasonably. To prevent the respondent from repeating the action, you can order the respondent to compensate the complainant in the amount as determined by the Tribunal.
“At another level, failure to establish a policy, or if you breach the confidentiality requirements of the legislation, that constitutes a penalty where you could be fined up to $10,000, face a term of imprisonment, or both. In the case of a person making a false complaint, there is provision for a fine of $10,000 or 12 months’ imprisonment,” the CLO outlined.
He made it clear that if repeated efforts to get employers to complete the written policy failed, then they too will be penalised to the tune of $10,000 or two years’ imprisonment. The labour official also had some advice for employees who encountered sexual harassment in the workplace.
“The steps employees can take if they experience sexual harassment in the workplace, such as peer-on-peer harassment, are to complain to your supervisor or management to resolve the issue. If you are not satisfied with the internal resolution, then you can approach the Chief Labour Officer on the matter. If the sexual harassment is against the chief executive officer of the organisation, then you may want to approach the CLO from the very outset.
“After the Chief Labour Officer has investigated and sought to bring a resolution to the matter, but is not satisfied that they have brought a resolution that is satisfactory, then the matter will go on to the Employment Rights Tribunal for a resolution,” he explained.
Persons seeking further information and guidance on the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Act 2017 may contact the Labour Department at 535-1500.