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Preventing harassment is everyone’s responsibility on the worksite and in the office.
Coming on the heels of recent class action lawsuits and investigations surrounding the sexual harassment of women in the RCMP and Canadian military, now seems a good time to talk about the state of play for our female members and their workplaces. Working in a safe and healthy place is everyone’s right and we need all hands on deck to make it happen.
The Alberta Human Rights Commission (albertahumanrights.ab.ca) defines sexual harassment as “any unwelcome sexual behaviour that adversely affects, or threatens to affect, directly or indirectly, a person’s job security, working conditions or prospects for promotion or earnings.” Behaviour ranges from “suggestive remarks, sexual jokes or compromising invitations, verbal abuse, visual display of suggestive images, to leering or whistling, patting, rubbing or other unwanted physical contact, outright demands for sexual favours and physical assault.”
These definitions do little to encourage an understanding of the effects of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment creates an unhealthy atmosphere in the workplace, and one which affects the entire workforce. For victims, the consequences can be serious and debilitating. Sometimes the employee experiences pressure to the point that it drives her to leave her job, or experiences such emotional stress that it inhibits her ability to perform a job to acceptable standards. Sexually harassed women are reported to suffer anxiety, depression, headaches, sleep disorders, weight loss or gain, and nausea. This culmination of poor health can lead to time away from the job with unpaid leave.
The consequences for women, as a group of workers collectively, are also serious. If a workplace culture tolerates any form of sexual harassment then the victims face a difficult decision about staying, going, or worse yet considering a new career.
In a relatively short period of time, two very serious incidents of sexual harassment have been brought forward to our union leadership, but the reality is that there are many more that go unreported for fear of retaliation or discreet blacklisting. Often, these incidents go unreported to management or to union representatives simply because the victim does not want to make waves.
The culture we work in does not do enough to encourage people to come forward; in fact, in many ways it discourages them. Sisters who have reported sexual harassment on the job have often been branded as “rats” or “troublemakers.” If a sister has the courage to make a complaint, she often suffers in silence from impending gang mentality and retaliation. Our brothers often shy away from any contact with sisters for fear that they may be accused of something untoward or get caught up in an issue that may compromise them and therefore prefer to not work with women at all. It’s a sad testament to our industry.
The Alberta Regional Council has pledged to do better for its members. In collaboration with the Sisters in the Brotherhood, the leadership has committed to developing a process for dealing with complaints. Included in this process will be a mechanism to ensure job stewards and business agents are included at the onset of any investigation.
We are in the early developmental stages of putting together a sexual harassment policy, for which we hope to get employer input and buy-in. Once it’s complete, we hope to train front-line supervision, stewards and members on how to unite to bring about safe and tolerant workplaces and to provide tangible guidance when these unsavoury events occur.
As a member, you play an important role in securing this change. Just as safety personnel preach about hazards on the job and use catch phrases like “If you see it – you own it,” we must all unite under the harassment banner with the same amount of vigour and courage. So I would ask you to please, when the time comes, get involved in ridding our workplaces of sexual harassment.