Singapore

Website to help tackle sexual harassment

Tech group starts initiative as more become aware of workplace problem

Samantha, 28, was shocked and speechless when her senior manager placed his hand on her buttocks one night when she was working late.

She found out later that he had tried to kiss another colleague and had also touched yet another colleague's breasts, among other harassing acts.

After realising the extent of his predatory ways, the three women in the technology start-up complained to their boss.

Samantha (not her real name), now an events executive in another company, said: "We were afraid our boss would dismiss the matter, as he is the boss' pet.

"But the boss investigated and fired him. I was so relieved but also afraid that he would take revenge on us."

Since dozens of women, including famous stars, exposed Hollywood studio mogul Harvey Weinstein as a sexual predator last month, hardly a day goes by now without a celebrity or politician being accused of sexual misconduct.

Such harassment at work is not confined to the West.

Human resources experts and lawyers say that it is not uncommon in Singapore, but they do not know the extent of its prevalence.

But there are some indicators.

A survey in 2008 by the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) found slightly over half of the 500 people polled had faced some form of sexual harassment at work - ranging from receiving sexually explicit messages or content to being touched inappropriately and, at its worst, rape.

In the first six months of this year, Aware, which runs a centre that helps sexual assault victims, received 35 calls on workplace sexual harassment.

Last year, it received 74 such calls, and 56 the year before.

Another indicator is the applications for protection orders under the Protection from Harassment Act. Last year, there were 96, a notable drop from 159 in 2015. But the figures are not distilled to set apart cases involving sexual harassment in the workplace.

A group of technology entrepreneurs here wants to collect more data by starting an online platform for people to share their experiences of harassment without compromising their safety while finding support from others.

MEN ARE VICTIMS TOO

Mr Florian Cornu, one of those behind the project, says the group is working out the details, but hopes the website can go live by the end of this year.

He said: "This is a problem that will not go away in six months. We want to bring about more transparency on this and educate people that harassment is unacceptable and is not okay."

While men preying on women subordinates form the bulk of culprits, experts interviewed by The Straits Times say a quiet minority of victims are men hit on by other men or women.

Often, the aggressor is the boss but harassing behaviour by a client or colleague is not uncommon. HR experts say there has been a greater acknowledgement of the problem in recent years, with HR departments more ready to take action when they receive such a complaint.

In 2015, the Manpower Ministry, the National Trades Union Congress and the Singapore National Employers Federation issued an advisory to companies to advocate for zero tolerance of harassment. They suggested measures that firms could adopt, such as a hotline for victims and better training for HR staff to deal with such cases.

Singapore Human Resources Institute president Erman Tan said: "In the past, people may sweep it under the carpet as it is a touchy topic and the HR may not be trained to handle such complaints.

"But increasingly, companies are realising that avoiding it will not solve the problem."

HR consultant Arthur Khong believes that many firms still do not have a workplace harassment policy.

The lack of such policies deters staff from coming forward because they feel their complaints may not be taken seriously, an Aware spokesman said.

They also fear losing their jobs and other repercussions. So many choose to keep mum and quit instead, said those interviewed.

But the #MeToo movement, with actress Alyssa Milano urging victims of sexual harassment to tweet "me too" to show the magnitude of the problem, may have broken the veil of silence surrounding the issue.

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