Sex pest law to put bosses in firing line

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Series Details Vol.7, No.23, 7.6.01, p3
Publication Date 07/06/2001
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Date: 07/06/01

By John Shelley

Ministers are set to adopt tough new EU-wide laws which will allow workers to take their bosses to court if they are sexually harassed by another colleague.

The rules are expected to be approved at the social affairs Council on Monday (11 June). Proposed by Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou, they will provide a broad legal definition of sexual harassment, although what exactly constitutes an offence will be left up to national judges and the European Court of Justice to decide.

The European Commission intends that the new laws will cover sexual jokes, sexual advances, pin-up posters of naked women and suggestive gestures. "This directive will put the ball in management's court to provide a harassment-free workplace, whether or not it is management's fault that the incident occurred and whether or not it was the manager who is the harasser," said Diamantopoulou's spokesman Andrew Fielding.

However, he added, this would not necessarily mean that office or factory workers would be prevented from hanging the famous Pirelli calendar on the wall or displaying risque pictures of film stars. "What is important is to establish the principle and legal back-stop," Fielding said. "The hoped-for result is that before putting up the Pirelli calendar, people might spare a thought for those who might be offended and take steps to find out if they would be. "How each individual case comes out will depend on the circumstances. If a picture is put up in a private part of an office or premises, it will clearly have the potential to upset fewer people."

Although the Commission does not intend to provoke a rash of court actions, the rules would force member states to revise their anti-discrimination rules, although some already have tough harassment laws.

However, in Spain, Portugal, Greece and Italy this will be the first time that employers have had to take responsibility for any harassment that takes place within their companies.

Germany, too, will have to overhaul its laws, because its definition of sexual harassment is much narrower in scope than the proposals due to be agreed. "Some countries have recognised that sexual harassment in the workplace is a problem, in others though it's virtually unrecognised," said Fielding. "It's critical to break the silence on this problem at community level because our data shows that in one form or another sexual harassment is alarmingly common."

According to Commission figures between 30% and 50% of female employees have experienced sexual harassment, as have about 10% of male workers.

Harassment-prone occupations include police officer, bus or taxi driver, waitress and nurse. The most common type of harassment is verbal, such as sexual jokes and remarks about body, clothes and sex.

Non-verbal forms such as staring, whistling and unsolicited physical contact are also frequent and between 1% and 6% of employees have suffered a sexual assault or rape, according to the Commission.

MEPs have welcomed the proposed laws but have also criticised the EU for focussing too little on preventing harassment in the first place.

Heidi Hautala, the Parliament's rapporteur on the subject, said: "This approach appears to be problematic, bearing in mind that most infringements of the equality principle or cases of sexual harassment do not come to light at all and of those which do only a fraction are pursued in judicial or in conciliatory proceedings."

Ministers are set to adopt tough new EU-wide laws which will allow workers to take their bosses to court if they are sexually harassed by another colleague.

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