The Costs Of Sexual Harassment In The Asian Workplace

The Costs Of Sexual Harassment In The Asian Workplace.

It can be found everywhere from the paddy field to public relations firms, the marketplace to the managing director’s office – sexual harassment in the Asian workplace is not new. In the wake of the #MeToo phenomenon and the Weinstein effect, an open debate about sexual harassment in Asia is taking shape, but the parameters are slightly different. As with violent crime, sexual harassment numbers are challenging to estimate because offences go under-reported. But in 2008 the International Trade Union Confederation estimated that between 30 – 40% of women workers in the Asia-Pacific region had reported some form of harassment. Experts agree that figure is now much higher because more women have entered the workforce in Asia in recent years.

In most Asian countries, including China, Vietnam and Singapore, the female labour participation rate is now more than 50%, according to data from the International Labour Organisation. That’s comparable to many countries in the West. The glaring outliers, of course, are India (27%) and Japan (48%) but the broader trend is clear. What that means is that there are now increasing numbers of Asian women working in factories, uniquely susceptible to being sexually harassed in that space. But across the developing world, and particularly in Asia, there is also an informal economy which sees large numbers of women in roles like domestic work and part-time farm-hands, all in potentially vulnerable situations. Whether it’s a farm or fintech, sexual harassment is a brutalising experience. The International Labour Organisation defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome and unwanted sexual conduct, that encompasses physical, verbal or non-verbal acts of a sexual nature which are offensive to the person harassed.” For many women working in factories in Asia, there is rarely an opportunity to complain against male superiors – because they hold all the cards.

Take Cambodia’s garment industry. Women account for 85% of the country’s workforce and are central to the success of the garment sector, which makes up a third of Cambodia’s economy. But as a recent study shows they are also the ones sexually harassed, because they have far less power than their male bosses and managers. One woman interviewed in the report says, “This happens to many women, but we don’t report it to the factory. They say that if a worker has three warnings, then they should be fired. But I’ve never seen that happen at my factory…”

From the female factory worker in Cambodia to high-rise offices in Mumbai, all of the stories I’ve heard tell you a similar tale – a younger female, exploited and vulnerable in the face of a more powerful, senior male. Dipali Ekobote’s first experience of sexual harassment was in her initial job, in India – when she and her boss went on a trip to another city. “When we checked into the hotel, he told me that there was only one room the company could afford to pay for, so we would have to share a room,” she told me. “It shocked me, and I had a tough time fending off his advances on that work trip.” Dipali eventually left the company to do her MBA and has put the experience behind her, but that isn’t true for everybody.

Annabelle (not her real name) was until recently working in a sports entertainment firm in Singapore where she complained about a senior colleague making sexual innuendoes inappropriate in a work environment. Nothing happened. Instead, he got promoted. Soon after that Annabelle quit. “His behaviour towards other women in the workplace and me was a major factor in my decision to leave,” she told me. “What kind of message does that send to the employees in the firm, not just the women but the men too? It’s unacceptable.” Many women, like Annabelle, who have been victims of sexual harassment and haven’t received help have had no option but to leave their jobs.

In Cambodia, sexual harassment is thought to have cost the economy some $89m (£66.7m) in lost productivity in 2015, equivalent to 0.5% of GDP. In the office, sexual power games are subtle and hard to pinpoint. Power struggles between men and women in hierarchical societies like Korea and Japan, where workplaces are bound to tightly-held norms, are often played out in nuanced ways. Having worked in both the US and Japan, for American as well as Japanese companies, Nobuko Kobayashi has often been the only female in the boardroom or at high-powered meetings – and that’s led to some uncomfortable situations. “The typical work culture at Japanese corporations calls for nomikai – after-hours drinking and ‘bonding’ sessions with male colleagues and clients,” she told me on the line from Tokyo. “Traditionally after-party places or nijikai are where female hostesses serve, entertain and beguile the men – so female colleagues aren’t typically welcome. As a woman, you would feel very uncomfortable”.

Asian women often feel too awkward bringing sexual harassment cases up to their superiors “because they feel no one will believe them,” Anisha Joseph from the Association for Action and Research (AWARE) in Singapore says. And there is the issue that men in some Asian cultures believe that women need to be responsible for the message they are sending to their male colleagues – a view widely considered unacceptable – but which activists say have a degree of open acceptance in Asia. “A lot of women dress highly inappropriately for work in some Asian countries,” a man told me on the condition of anonymity. “It’s like they’re going to a nightclub. I am not saying they’re asking for it, but it does make the message they’re sending hard to read. And that could lead to misunderstandings.” But others have told me that it may be because some men don’t know where the boundaries are. As more women enter the workforce in Asia, there is a clash between “tradition and modernity”, observes Sudhir Vadaketh, a Singapore-based writer and commentator. “Within Asia, there are such diverse levels of sophistication and exposure,” he told me. “Sometimes men from reserved societies are coming into contact with women who are more gregarious and modern in their dressing. These men completely misinterpret friendly office banter and think their female colleagues are flirting with them”.

Still, the focus on sexual harassment has meant that some Asian women are finding it easier to speak out. In India for instance, which has seen some of the worst and most brutal cases of rape, assault and violent crime against women, women are taking to social media to shame sexual harassers. But for now, it is only a certain class of women that can speak out, because of their access to education and their ability to engage on social media.

Fundamentally though, the reason so many Asian women face sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere, is because of one simple reason – because they are women, as this study from the UN points out. Despite more women entering the workforce in Asia, the power dynamic still clearly favours men – and that means “women are vulnerable to harassment because they lack similar power, lack self-confidence and…suffer in silence.” Sexual harassment is also often used as a “tool to discourage women who may be seen to be competing for power”, the study adds. The UN report was written more than a decade ago yet still holds true today – a reflection of just how marginal the progress has been in ensuring the safety of women in the workplace in Asia. AWARE’s Anisha Joseph says Asian governments can do more to ensure businesses make workplaces safer for women. “Currently in many countries, including Singapore, there are only recommendations in place,” she told me, “Governments need to make this a priority”.

Credit: Karishma Vaswani for The BBC, 13 December 2017.