Cyprus: Sexual harassment in the workplace

Although Cypriot legislation prohibits sexual harassment in the workplace, there is evidence that sexual harassment at work is a widespread problem, with most incidents not reported to the authorities. Research has revealed that sexual harassment affects mainly female employees, while the most vulnerable group among women is domestic workers, especially immigrants.

Introduction

Issues relating to sexual harassment in the workplace are regulated by Article 2 of the Equal Treatment of Men and Women in Employment and Vocational Training Laws of 2002 as amended up to 2014.

However, even though the problem is recognised and a relatively full and adequate institutional framework exists and is being gradually supplemented and amended in line with EU provisions, women tend to conceal the problem. This concealment also explains the extremely small number of cases brought to justice.

The two main reasons for victims’ failure to exploit their opportunities to recourse to justice are:

  • fear of the consequences;
  • the difficulty of proving sexual harassment.

Landmark legal ruling

On 7 August 2014, a decision (Case No. 758/2005) issued by the Nicosia Industrial Disputes Tribunal concluded that a female employee at the General Hospital of Nicosia had been the victim of systematic sexual harassment by a male colleague which had lasted for almost 12 months. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction to determine cases of unequal treatment or sexual harassment in the workplace.

This was a landmark court decision, by Cypriot standards, for two reasons. The first is that, despite sexual harassment being a widespread problem in Cyprus, most incidents are not reported to the authorities and very few get as far as court.

The second relates to the ruling itself. The case highlighted the obligation of employers and their representatives to take all available and timely measures to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace. For the first time, a Cypriot court not only recognised this obligation but also ruled that the employer was fully and jointly responsible for the sexual harassment along with the defendant.

The plaintiff told the tribunal that when a member of the nursing staff at the Nicosia General Hospital filed a complaint about repeated sexual harassment, the hospital’s head nurse did no more than suggest that she be moved to another department so that the case could be closed.

In its judgement, the Industrial Disputes Tribunal ruled that the law requires an employer to take not only preventive measures to combat sexual harassment but also appropriate measures to see that it stops and is not repeated. It also ruled that the primary responsibility borne by the person who committed the offence should not eliminate the joint and equal responsibility of an employer who takes no steps to prevent or stop harassment.

The awarding of damages and compensation for non-material loss to the worker in this case was achieved through the disciplinary punishment of forcing the defendant to retire. This route was taken because that maximum monetary compensation that the tribunal could award was only €5,000, considered by many as too low to give due recognition in cases of non-material loss.

The Secretary of the Central Women’s Department of the Pancyprian Federation of Labour (PEO) Marina Koukou pointed out that, although this ruling had positive ramifications for other sexual harassment complaints, the maximum compensation of €5,000 is too low to deter sexual harassment. Also, the fact that the case took almost 10 years to be resolved may also discourage future complaints.

Immigrant women are the main victims

One of the first surveys on the issue of sexual harassment in Cyprus was carried out by the University of Nicosia in 1997. It revealed that, among a sample of 1,500 male and female workers, 85% regarded sexual harassment as a serious social problem, while 40% knew someone who had been a victim of sexual harassment. The survey found that 96% of the victims of sexual harassment worked in clubs, 73% as domestic workers, 64% in hotels, 38% in manufacturing, 28% in retail and offices and 17% in the education sector.

In 2006, the Cyprus Employers and Industrialists Federation (OEB) carried out a study on women’s access to top management positions in banks and semi-state organisations. The survey covered 1,407 female employees. Of the respondents, 10% of those working in banks had been subjected to indecent propositions while 15.7% of women in semi-state organisations admitted they had been victims of sexual harassment in the workplace.

The most recent research study on the frequency of sexual harassment at work was carried out by the Cyprus University of Technology in September 2009. It found that 6% of employees had experienced sexual harassment in their workplace; however, one in two respondents believed that some victims deserved the harassment.

All available research reveals that sexual harassment affects mostly women employees and mainly female domestic workers.

A conference on 'sexual violence against domestic workers' organised by the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies and the Cyprus University of Technology was held in Nicosia on 27 September 2014. It concluded that domestic workers in Cyprus are especially vulnerable to violence and exploitation at work, as most of them live and work at the home of their employers. Data from the Civil Registry and Migration Department show that there were 45,804 domestic workers in Cyprus in 2013, of whom the majority were women.

State's role in protecting victims

According to an Ombudsman's report on the situation of domestic workers issued on 2 July 2013, the few data available on the number of complaints lodged with the Department of Labour, part of the Ministry of Labour, Welfare and Social Insurance (MLSI), indicate that the majority of victims of sexual harassment are female immigrant domestic workers who are harassed in the workplace, either by their employers or by third parties.

However, most of the complaints to the Ombudsman refer to the way the cases were handled by the Department of Labour. The Ombudsman has stated that most complaints by domestic workers about violence and harassment in the workplace are not examined on the basis of the specialised modern laws intended to combat discrimination in the workplace, but instead on the basis of the ordinary Penal Code. This does not offer the same range of penalties for this type of offence and nor is it as effective in protecting the victims.

In April 2011, the Equality Authority pointed out that strict adherence to legal levels of proof is not a precondition for equality inspectors to act. A broad spectrum of evidence can be accepted, including evidence that normally would not be acceptable in penal procedures before a court. This position has been strengthened by the introduction of the ordinance on the reversal of the burden of proof, judged necessary to overcome the difficulty of investigating complaints of sexual harassment (usually because of a lack of proof).
In the opinion of the Ombudsman, the ability to reverse the burden of proof in the context of administrative and/or other procedures is an important tool when establishing a case of sexual harassment in the workplace. Failure to make use of this tool when the Department of Labour examines an allegation of sexual harassment means that the investigation cannot take advantage of the beneficial and protective provisions of the Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Employment and Vocational Training Laws of 2002–2014.

When a complainant’s case is examined in the context of the Penal Code, the offence of indecent assault is investigated. This means that:

  • proof of the offence is required beyond any reasonable doubt;
  • the case cannot be established without clear evidence;
  • without such evidence, the complainant’s request to change employer will be rejected;
  • the complainant is likely to be held in a police detention centre with a view to deportation.

There is no legal basis for proceeding in this way and it conflicts with the institutional role of the Department of Labour, which is to protect labour rights and ensure decent conditions of employment for domestic workers within the normal functioning of the labour market. Existing practice inevitably leads to domestic workers being discouraged from lodging complaints of sexual harassment. As a result, the sense of injustice and insecurity is intensified. This harms the reputation of the protective institutions and encourages the development of a culture of tolerance for violations of basic labour and human rights.

Limitations of the existing legislation

The Ombudsman has said that the way the legislation is worded inhibits complaints about sexual harassment by third parties who have no formal employment relationship with a victim, even though the harassment may be happening at a place of work.

In response to a letter from the Ombudsman in August 2011 about a complaint of sexual harassment of a domestic worker made by a third party, the Department of Labour expressed its concern over the wording of Article 12 of Law 205(I)/2002. It forbids any act constituting sexual harassment against an employee. According to subparagraphs (2), (3) and (4) of the article, such an act involves an action or omission on the part of the victim’s bosses and any other worker, student, trainee and/or person competent or responsible for the contents of Articles 7, 8, 9 and 10 (that is, for access to employment, vocational education, training, implementation of the terms and conditions of employment and publication of job vacancies).

The Department of Labour's position is that the legislator’s intention, as it emerges from the regulation of Article 12, covers the actions of only individuals connected with the victim through their official employment relationship, either as employers or as fellow workers. Article 12 therefore does not cover domestic workers sexually harassed in their place of work by relatives, acquaintances and/or friends of the employer.

The General Director of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance says in a letter that when such complaints are lodged with the Department of Labour, they are forwarded to the police to be examined. This practice victimises the complainants who as a rule find themselves facing a threat of deportation. The Department of Labour says it has again requested that this problem be referred to the Attorney General for his opinion.

This is particularly important since, in many cases involving domestic workers, the wife of the person accused of harassment is usually the victim's employer. It is therefore essential to amend the Equal Treatment for Men and Women in Employment and Vocational Training Laws of 2002–2014 to extend its provisions to cover harassment by third parties in the workplace.

Prevention and the role of the social partners

In June 2004, the OEB issued a code of practice on sexual harassment in workplaces. The code, one of the first attempts at prevention, was drawn up on the basis of International Labour Organization (ILO) standards and European Union principles. It includes:

  • a policy statement;
  • how to define sexual harassment;
  • details of vulnerable groups and the impact on victims;
  • examples of sexual harassment;
  • a procedure for the submission and examination of complaints.

In March 2007, the Democratic Labour Federation of Cyprus (DEOK) published a manual called 'Sexual harassment in the workplace: An invisible nightmare', which contained guidance and training for workers, trade union organisations and government officials.

In February 2011, the Equality Authority published a 'Code of good practice for the prevention of sexual harassment at work'. The code sets out definitions of sexual harassment and harassment related to gender and offers guidance to employers on prevention and combating sexual harassment in the workplace.

The code makes it clear that employers are responsible for creating and operating an effective internal complaint system and must handle all complaints with sensitivity, fairness and confidentiality within a reasonable period of time. The code also summarises prevailing stereotypes and prejudices, and explains how to avoid them. It reminds employers that they are obliged to be objective and avoid being influenced by prejudice, stereotypes and personal opinions that might affect the outcome of the complaint procedure. Finally the code sets out a complaint submission procedure, allowing for both formal and informal approaches.

More recently administrators at the Cyprus Institute of Neurobiology and Genetics (CING) decided on 13 May 2014 to adopt a code to deal with sexual harassment. The Minister of Labour, Zeta Emilianidou, said that the CING would be certified by the state for best practice in the area of gender equality in the workplace, adding that this would enhance the organisation's reputation as an equal opportunities employer and help it to attract high-calibre staff. In her speech, the minister said that sexual harassment is a big problem in Cyprus given that research suggests nine out of 10 women who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace have not spoken out for fear of losing their jobs.

Commentary   

Despite the recognition of the problem and the establishment of a relatively full and adequate institutional framework, sexual harassment continues to be a major problem for many workers in Cyprus. The victims are mainly working women. Many fail to report the problem and some 'consent' to sexual coercion, usually under the threat of particularly pressing conditions such as high unemployment or fear of deportation. As a result they become even more vulnerable to exploitation at work and to all forms of abuse, degradation and marginalisation.

Making an allegation of sexual harassment continues to be regarded as taboo in Cypriot society . This has significantly affected the existing regulatory framework, particularly in its general understanding of the concept of gender violence. Whereas the concept of gender discrimination has formed the basis for legislation on sexual harassment and has led to a rich case law, sexual harassment as a form of gender violence has only rarely been addressed by legislation and case law.
 

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