When good intentions seemingly go awry

In a bid to make wrong things right, Government moved to the Senate this past week with a new bill to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.

At face value, the draft legislation known as the Employment Sexual Harassment (Prevention) Bill, 2017, seems to be a perfectly good piece of legislation, crafted on a most noble set of objectives and therefore should be supported for all intents and purposes.

After all, we all do live in Barbados and would have heard or experienced first hand at one point or another the unwanted catcalls, the hissing at every turn, uninvited touching and kissing.

In this social media era, it is also now commonplace to receive not one but several sexually explicit Whatsapp or Facebook messages on any given day.

Some men and women have also taken to the very annoying habit of distributing naked photographs and sex videos at all hours of the day without prior warning or solicitation.

And then there are those office “professionals” who have somehow managed to turn an innocent hug into a bum or body squeeze; a kiss on the cheek into a slobberfest; and a simple ‘good morning’ or ‘hello’ into a full episode of ‘don’t blush baby’ a la Chris Gayle.

In the modern business world, where men still dominate the boardrooms, some women have also been made to feel like lesser mortals with only one way up the corporate ladder, and that unfortunately begins and ends with them on their backs.

Enters Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo with the Employment Sexual Harassment Prevention Bill 2017 which not only covers “uninvited physical contact with a person”, but also “unwelcome sexual advances” and “requests of sexual favours from a person”.

The yet-to-be proclaimed legislation also covers, and we think rightly so, “asking a person intrusive questions that are of a sexual nature that pertain to that person’s private life; transmitting sexually offensive writing or material of any kind; making sexually offensive telephone calls to a person; or any other sexually suggestive conduct of an offensive nature”.

However, what has taken us completely by surprise is the section of the draft Bill that covers “use of sexually suggestive words, comments, jokes, gestures or actions that annoy, alarm or abuse a person”.

In tabling the measure in the Upper House on Wednesday, Dr Byer-Suckoo warned that Barbadians “have to have the right to work without fear of molestation, harassment [or] fear of any kind in the workplace”.

And based on her own knowledge of what actually takes place in offices across Barbados, the Minister of Labour was adamant that “we have to be able to say to [perpetrators] by virtue of this legislation, it [sexual harassment] stops now”.

In tabling the draft statute, Dr Byer-Suckoo explained that it was gender neutral Therefore, it “does not presuppose that the perpetrator is a man and the victim is a woman, but allows for those occasions where either could be the victim and either could be the perpetrator”.

She, however, hastened to add that the Bill was not an opening for regulations making homosexuality legal.

And while we certainly have no difficulty with her moral position in relation to the law, we think it is somewhat naïve to say the very least that our Government would expect anything but an uphill battle as far as implementation of this sexual harassment legislation goes, given the very touchy nature of the issue at hand and the subjectiveness of the allegations involved.

It is for this reason that we are having difficulty comprehending why Government would even propose to have such cases held ‘in camera’ and furthermore why it would even suggest that in cases of dismissal, reinstatement of the accuser by the alleged perpetrator is an option allowed for under the Employment Rights Act.

For while we understand the need to draw the line, and the importance of stamping out harassment in all its forms, we feel that in the rush to bring this Bill to Parliament our draftsmen neglected one very critical consideration; that being our very Barbadian and Caribbean way of life.

For if this legislation is allowed to stand as is, we fear that our disc jockeys may never be able to play another Sparrow track on radio. Heck, a person may even be hauled before the tribunal for performing an office karaoke of the Trinidadian maestro’s “all salt fish sweet”.

But do we really want to go there, remembering that this is not Hitler’s Germany, but Rihanna’s Barbados, known the world over for selling romance and other “gestures” under the guise that “Tourism is our business”?

Taken to its full extent, this law could even jeopardize our annual Crop Over if a man, or woman for that matter, was thought to be using “sexually suggestive actions that annoy, alarm or abuse a person”.

As ridiculous as it all sounds, this could very well be the case amid this excessively broad legislative sexual harassment brush.

At this rate similar legislation would also have to be brought to bear to deal with our interactions in schools and in the Church, where like the workplace, Barbadians have for centuries been able to touch each other on the shoulder without even a thought of sex entering the picture.

Yes, there are some rotten apples out there, but to haul anyone before a tribunal for saying the words “penis” or “vagina” out loud in the office is really quite a legislative stretch.

We believe an urgent rethink of this aspect of the culturally insensitive Bill is needed before things get any further out of whack in a society which really should be spending more time teaching its young men and women the nuances of what is appropriate when and where.

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