The #METOO Movement Affects all women in all workplaces

In 2017, the initial idea of the #MeToo movement was to empathise with, and empower, victims of sexual abuse by shifting experiences of sexual assault and sexual harassment from the private to the public. What followed was unprecedented. The hashtag quickly turned into a global movement for social justice and change. The #MeToo movement unfolded in recent years on a scale that was unforeseeable, yet South Africa is still plagued by gender-based violence and sexual assault. 

This was recently highlighted by President Ramaphosa in a public address where he urged lawmakers in parliament to process legislative amendments for greater protection for women against domestic or sexual violence. “I want to assure the women and children of South Africa that our criminal justice system will remain focused on gender-based violence cases,” said the president. He noted a rise in incidents since some of the country’s stringent coronavirus restrictions were lifted. 

South Africa clearly faces a massive societal problem and it is a mistake to think that this problem exists only in back-streets, townships and on the news. It is prevalent in all corners of society and the #MeToo movement highlighted a number of harsh realities for places meant to be ‘safe’: South African workplaces. 

The first harsh actuality is that sexual harassment, a form of unfair discrimination under South Africa’s employment equity law, is an incontestable “scourge” in the workplace, and “the most heinous misconduct that plagues a workplace”, as described by the Labour Appeal Court. The second harsh actuality is that no workplace or sector is immune from the unwarranted sexual advances of predators in the form of colleagues, managers, clients, and employers. The third glaring actuality is that sexual harassment continues to have a disproportionately negative impact on women in the workplace. 

Women from all walks of life – irrespective of race, class and age – continue to be on the receiving end of this aggravating behaviour by, primarily, men in the workplace. Sexual harassment and the objectification of women are so woven into our culture that they are considered normal, exacerbated by patriarchal and misogynistic norms. The problem is that only one party feels normal. For the other, sexual harassment is a violation of that party’s rights, and poses a barrier to substantive equality in the workplace. 

With the prominent rise of the #MeToo movement, and the President’s recent emphasis on the increasing levels of gender-based violence, no employer can ignore this glaring problem. Ultimately, the common law duty of care and duty to provide a safe working environment rests on the employer, and this duty extends to all workers on site. This begs some real questions for consideration: Are employers serious when it comes to combating sexual harassment and other gender-based harms in the workplace? What support structures are in place to assist victims of gender-based harms throughout the process? What proactive mechanisms, policies and practices can be put into place to eradicate the scourge of sexual harassment? Are employers thinking out of the box to explore non-legal strategies for their specific workplace challenges? Are there suitably drafted policies in place? Are such policies properly communicated?

The #MeToo movement promotes a culture of accountability, and emphasises the need to change behaviour and the need to re-evaluate and strengthen workplace systems and policies. What is required is systemic transformation driven by employers. There is a dire need to critically reflect on the way in which women are treated in the workplace, and to consider ways in which organisations can challenge the status quo. However, that message of change needs to be received in an environment that unequivocally condemns this type of behaviour. For a long time, a very long time, many industries have had little regard for creating safe spaces of work for women. The time has come for employers to seize the opportunity to create a safe working environment for its workforce, with a particular focus on its more vulnerable employees; or face legal sanctions under section 60 of the Employment Equity Act 55 of 1998 and under the law of vicarious liability.

Author:

Karmini Pillay, Executive, Employment Equity, LNP Attorneys Inc

Ricardo Pillay, Director, Construction, Infrastructure and PPP, LNP Attorneys Inc.