Women’s participation in the national workforce has increased from 5.72 million in the second quarter of 2017 to 5.76 million in the third quarter in the same year according to Chief Statistician of the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM), Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Uzir Mahidin. The female labour force participation rate for Malaysia was 54.3% the year before. Current trends indicate that the participation of women in the national workforce are set to rise even further.
The rising number of women in Malaysian workforce requires considerable attention from management and policymakers, especially of late when there have been reports on discriminatory practices as well as sexual harassment occurring at the workplace.
The International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education (WAFIQ) has recently completed their 6 months study on Discriminatory Practices And Sexual Harassment Among Working Women In Malaysia involving 402 working female respondents aged 18 to 59 years old from all states in Peninsular Malaysia. The study was conducted in collaboration with University Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) and funded by the Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (CENTHRA). It was also supported by 3 other non-governmental-organisations that represent the women, health and youth sectors respectively, namely Wanita ISMA, Ikatan Pengamal Perubatan Dan Kesihatan Muslim Malaysia (I-Medik) and Pertubuhan Belia Nasional (PEMBINA).
Results of the study have proved illuminating as to the scale of religious discrimination experienced by women in the workforce. The study revealed that 1 in 5 women experienced religious discrimination. These include difficulties in obtaining permission to pray at the workplace, a lack of or no space provided for prayers and general prohibition from wearing headscarves. Notably, the percentage of women being religiously discriminated is higher when the employers are of a different religion. However, in the case of providing places for prayers, even employers of the same religion as employees have failed to accommodate the need for a separate praying room for the exclusive use of women.
According to the study, approximately 14% of women feel that they have been denied promotions because of their religious identity and this hold true regardless of the religion of their employers. The study also revealed that 5.90% of women working with employers of a different religion left their jobs because of their religious identity, as compared to 3% with employers who are of the same religion who resigned because of their religious identity.
5.7% of respondents from all work sectors involved in this study have reported prohibition from wearing headscarves. Out of this number, 60.9 % were in the private sector. When these cases were analysed according to the different sectors, 36% of women being prohibited from wearing headscarves were in education, 27% in the hotel and hospitality industry, 18,% in business, 5% in health and 14% in various other sectors.
The study demonstrates the alarming prevalence of sexual harassment against women at the workplace. In assessing how prevalent sexual harassment is at the workplace, the study asked respondents whether they have witnessed any sexual harassment committed against other colleagues at the workplace and whether they had experienced such harassment personally. The results were staggering: 43.9% respondents have witnessed unwelcome sexual connotations, glances, gestures, or comments happening to others at workplace and 33.7% respondents have been sexually harassed in the form of unwelcomed sexual connotations, glances, gestures, or comments.
On unwelcome physical touch, 39.8% respondents have witnessed unwelcome conscious body contact on others at workplace while 32.6% of them have actually been sexually harassed in the form of unwelcome conscious body contact.
For those who had experienced sexual harassment, 73.2% admitted that they were sexually harassed on more than one occasion. The majority of them (57.1%) did not lodge any formal complaint, citing among other reasons that they did not think any action would be taken (46.7%), they didn’t know how (13.3%), they were scared of the implications (13.3%), they felt humiliated (11.1%) and a minority of them thought that such acts didn’t matter (4.4%).
The main perpetrators of sexual harassment in this study were colleagues (50%), followed by clients (28%), subordinates (11%), superiors (7%) and others (4%).
Equality Act and Sexual Harassment Act
The Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organisations in the UPR Process (MACSA) is deeply concerned with the results of this study and calls for immediate action in respect thereof. Of particular note is that even in today’s world, religious discrimination against women is still occurring in various sectors of employment. Human Resources Minister Richard Riot Jaem, on Jan 28th this year is on record saying that an amendment to the Employment Act will be tabled to address the issue in the current Parliament sitting. Unfortunately, this has not materialised.
In addressing the issue of religious discrimination against women, MACSA proposes for the enactment of an Equality Act in accordance with domestic values and norms while taking into consideration religious and cultural sensitivities of Malaysian society.
In the case of sexual harassment, the majority of women in this study did not lodge any formal complaint as they do not believe that the existing mechanism for victims of sexual harassment are effective.
Currently, women victims of sexual harassment may lodge a complaint to the employer or to the Labour Department. They may also lodge police report to initiate criminal investigation on relevant offences against the perpetrator under the Penal Code. However, sexual harassment at the workplace is often dealt with as dismissal cases under the Industrial Relations Act 1967.
In 2012, the Employment Act 1955 was amended by inserting a new provision defining “sexual harassment” as “any unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, whether verbal, non-verbal, visual, gestural or physical, directed at a person which is offensive or humiliating or is a threat to his wellbeing arising out of and during his employment”.
A new Section 81B makes it mandatory for all employers to establish a procedure dealing with complaints of sexual harassment (between employees, employers, and employer and employees) and to inquire into the complaint. The penalty for not implementing such a procedure is a fine not exceeding RM10,000.
The Labour Department has also made it mandatory for all organisations to have a Sexual Harassment Policy in place as part of compliance with the Employment Act 1955 after the new provision in the amended act came into force in 2013.
Nonetheless, these half heated fixes do not go far enough in addressing the matter at hand.
In the absence of a specific legislation such as Sexual Harassment Act, our courts are prevented from dealing with issues such as the burden of proof and what constitutes sexual harassment more effectively. Such provisions are crucial in view of the study, where many cases have been unreported because women may be unaware whether unwanted advances constitute sexual harassment and therefore fail to gather evidence or proof for further action to be taken against their perpetrators. The enactment of a specific legislation criminalising sexual harassment by punishing predators and protecting victims would contribute much towards reducing sexual harassment at the workplace. Examples of such laws can be found in several jurisdictions, including the Philippines (the Anti-Sexual Harassment Act 1995), Australia (Sex Discrimination Act 1984), France (Labour Code, Criminal Code), Russia (Criminal Code), the United Kingdom (Sex Discrimination Act 1975), India (the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace 2013), and Pakistan (Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010).
The impact of both religious discrimination and sexual harassment against women in the national workforce is serious and can cause much physical and psychological distress to employees and tension at the workplace, thereby reducing their productivity and affecting the national economy. There is a pressing need for safe and conducive working environments for working women. MACSA reiterates its call for adoption of legal safeguards in addressing religious discrimination and sexual harassment against women and hopes the relevant authorities take concrete action in this regard.
JOINT STATEMENT BY:
Azril Mohd Amin,
Chief Executive, CENTHRA and Chairperson, MACSA or the Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organisations in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process.
Associate Professor Dr. Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar,
President of The International Women’s Alliance for Family Institution and Quality Education WAFIQ) and Co-Chairperson, MACSA.
The Malaysian Alliance of Civil Society Organisations in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process (MACSA) is a coalition of civil society organisations with the specific aim and object to look into, as well as advocate, human rights issues in Malaysia for the UPR Process.
ABOUT THE RESEARCH:
The research Discriminatory Practices And Sexual Harassment Among Working Women In Malaysia was funded by Centre for Human Rights Research & Advocacy (CENTHRA). It was approved by the Research Committee of Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences USIM – Research code USIM/CENTHRA/FPSK/052002/42417. Research ethical approval was obtained from USIM: USIM/REC/2017-36
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Rafidah Hanim Mokhtar; Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia (USIM) & President of WAFIQ
Prof Dr Azizi Ayob; Program Director, International Medical University (IMU) & Secretary of I-Medik
Assoc. Prof. Dr. Noor Fadzilah Zulkifli; Pathologist, Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, USIM
Puan Hjh. Asral Widad Ahmad Asnawi; Chairperson Pengusaha Warga Emas Kebangsaan, Founder of Pusat Kemerlangan Ummah (PACU) and Deputy President of WAFIQ
Dr. Amira Ismail; Senior Lecturer, Centre for Software Technology and Management, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) & Vice President, WAFIQ
Dr. Nur Hazlin Hazrin Chong, Lecturer, School of Biosciences and Biotechnology UKM & Secretary of WAFIQ
Mr Mohd Eqwan Mohd Roslan; Lecturer, Mechanical Engineering, Universiti Tenaga National (UNITEN) & President of PEMBINA
Dr. Norzila bt Baharin; Wanita ISMA
Puan Azizah bt Che Awang; Wanita ISMA
Puan Siti Farhana binti Fathy, Wanita ISMA
Mr. Muhammad Farid bin Sulaiman, PEMBINA
Puan Hanan bt Othman, WAFIQ Exco
Ms. Siti Aishyah binti Sulaiman, WAFIQ Exco
Dr. Maliya Suofeiya