“One night, I was working late and didn’t realize I was alone in the office with my boss. When I went to leave he walked towards me and hugged me from behind. I couldn’t fight him back. He’s six feet tall while I’m just 5-foot-2.”
This is Gift, 40, a client service director at a Bangkok advertising agency and just one of the 66 percent of women who, in our recent online survey, reported having been the subject of sexual jokes or unwanted sexual touching in a Bangkok workplace.
UN Women reports that, in the European Union, 75 percent of women in management and higher professions have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. In Bangkok, well, not that much is known. In fact, only one case of workplace sexual harassment has ever made it to the Supreme Court. It involves a managing director who is alleged to have forced a female employee to have sex with him to advance her career. The case is still ongoing.
What is known by those who work in Bangkok representing victims’ rights in sexual harassment cases is that the problem is endemic, and spans across all sexes.
“We see allegations arise two or three times a month,” says David Lawrence, a consultant at the law firm Tilleke & Gibbins, “but we rarely, if ever, litigate them. There is a common interest for all parties to handle it without the allegations going to court: the employer wants to keep it quiet; the employee who is harassed wants to keep it quiet; and the perpetrator wants to keep it quiet.”
“If a case is against someone on a senior level, the only way to raise this problem is to go to the court. If an employee goes to their human resources department, there is no guarantee as to what they can do for you.”
What tends to happen then, according to Lawrence and his colleague, Sasirusm B. Chunhakasikarn, an attorney- at-law, is that cases get settled out of court, mediated between the company’s legal team and the perpetrator, so no court records can ever give a true estimation of the scale of sexual misconduct at work.
Amazingly, the part of the Labor Protection Act that explicitly deals with sexual harassment—Section 16, which states: “It is prohibited for an employer, chief or staff, supervisor or inspector to sexually harass employees”—has also only existed since May 27, 2008.
What this Section makes clear, according to Lawrence, is that the harassment must be at the hands of a senior employee or employer towards their junior. Otherwise, cases of sexual harassment in work fall under the criminal code and its chapter “Offences Relating to Sexuality.”
As such, cases between two employees are a lot less tricky than when allegations are made against the highest level of management or an owner of a company. “From my experience, if a case is against someone on a senior level, like a managing director of a company, the only way to raise this problem is to go to the court,” says Sasirusm. “If an employee goes to their human resources department, there is no guarantee as to what they can do for them. However, if the case is against, say, a chief of staff or supervisor, HR is likely to be a lot more willing to help—they can use the wrongdoing as a reason to terminate that person’s employment contract.”
Nantaya, 26, a consultant working for one of Thailand’s top retail groups, suffered firsthand the difficulties of challenging senior management on sexual harassment claims, when she faced a string of unwanted sexual advances at the hands of a CEO for one of the group’s companies. During an evening out with the CEO, Nantaya says, he began to touch her inappropriately, and in the weeks that followed, “he kept texting and calling, and when I didn’t respond, he’d ask his secretary to call me to his office for a meeting. He would nag me into accepting his invitations and say that I ‘think too much.’ This happened every day for almost three weeks before I quit.”
Nantaya says that, at the time, she did not consider reporting the incidents to the company’s human resources department because the accusations were being leveled at her company’s CEO. “I’ve worked as head of HR. I know how the hierarchy works in Thai corporate offices. HR is under the CEO. But this was a family business, and this particular CEO is not part of the family. In fact, only one member of our team was in the family, though he was younger, only 28. I showed him screen shots of what had been going on and he went to his cousin who’s higher up still. The matter eventually went to the top CEO of [this retail group], who only called in his nephew to yell at him for reporting it. The one who was trying to do the right thing got yelled at. I had left the company by this stage, and heard about it from one of my other team members.”
Cases of employees driven to quitting their jobs were not uncommon among the respondents we spoke to, with a high case of incidents in financial, legal and consultancy professions. “This is a serious issue that’s not taken seriously in Thai work environments,” says Nantaya. “I ended up being unemployed for four months for something that wasn’t my fault. I am very lucky that I had financial stability. So many people must have to tolerate this bullshit without getting up and leaving because they can’t support themselves.”
Beau, 27, a financial professional with a leading Thai finance firm, did not leave her job when she became the subject of unwanted sexual jokes and slurs, but points to a masculine culture that allows such behavior to take place within her working environment: “My workplace is literally a man’s world. In my industry women are treated with less priority. Our product compensation is less than men’s even when we are equally qualified. Most of my Thai male colleagues interpret my being comfortable working, competing and drinking after work with men as meaning that I’m ‘easy,’ so regularly they tell dirty jokes about me.”
“I ended up being unemployed for four months for something that wasn’t my fault. So many people must have to tolerate this bullshit without getting up and leaving.”
After reporting the issue to the company’s human resources department, she says she received little support: “This is one of the leading companies in Thailand. It’s conservative and male-dominated. When I reported it to human resources they were actually aware of the issue, but these people are lower ranking. Some of those guilty of the harassment appear in the press; they’re like celebrities in the finance industry. I think the HR person calculated the risk and return for taking it further and in the end ignored my case. It’s not worth making these people upset.”
When, within the same company, the roles were reversed and junior employees were considered to be harassing their seniors, the response was very different, says Beau. “A couple of years ago some female colleagues reported to HR the case of messenger staff cat calling. In that case, HR’s response was quick and it was dealt with immediately. The harassers were low ranking and so HR took responsibility—some of the messengers were suspended from work, some were fired.”
Somchai Charoen-Umnuaisuke, the director general for the Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development, the governmental department which sets policies, collects data and implements workplace training scehemes on sexual equality, highlights another difficulty for those who try and report cases of sexual harassment. “In reality, many cases are hard to manage,” he says. “Harassment isn’t like assault. It doesn’t have evidence or even witnesses, so you can’t use criminal law. The big problem in Thailand is about personal perception. Many offenders don’t even know that what they’re doing is sexual harassment, especially when it’s verbal.”
Somchai’s department deals mainly with cases arising within the civil sector, where victims can turn to the Office of the Civil Service Commission with their complaints. He says that, in cases “when someone feels uncomfortable or as though they are being harassed, government departments will set up a committee to handle the case.” He does not go into detail about the outcomes of any of these committees.
So is Thailand exceptional compared to the rest of the world when it comes to not acting on sexual harassment claims? According to David Lawrence, who was licensed and practiced law in the US, there are big differences, principally in the kinds of settlements that are reached. “When I look at Thai cases versus Western cases—civil cases, generally—we [the U.S.] have the jury system, so awards for damages can be in the millions of dollars. We don’t have much data [for Thailand] yet—again, this is a new piece of legislation—but we can guess [that Thai financial settlements] are minimal, like B50,000-100,000. So if you sue in a civil court for damages, that would be a similar amount.”
He also points to the differences in internal company policies on sexual harassment. “For our firm, we generally represent multi-national firms doing business. Typically representing employers against a perpetrator or alleged perpetrator. So when we see sexual harassment cases, it’s because the company we represent has an HR policy that takes action against sexual harassment. Corporate culture is stronger than the local culture.”
Clearly, there is a lot still to be done. Nantaya was left out of work for four months thanks to her experiences, and lost the opportunity to enter a career in retail. “I felt lost and trapped and it wasn’t my fault,” she says. “While I was going through this experience, I was desperate to do something about it but felt like I couldn’t tell anyone. I tried to turn a blind eye but I shouldn’t have to—that mindset was wrong. I want to get my story out there so people who are going through this have a resource to turn to.”
Additional reporting by Monruedee Jansuttipan
All names of respondents to our sexual harassment survey have been changed.
Tilleke & Gibbins
Supalai Grand Tower, 26th Floor, 1011 Rama 3 Road, 02 653 5555. www.tilleke.com
Office of Women’s Affairs and Family Development
Office of the Civil Service Commission