Giang Vu (CARE)

(The story was published in The Sai Gon Times on 10 April 2018)

Mr Binh has not forgotten his early days in Japan almost a decade ago when he just arrived here for higher studies. He remembers vividly the three things the Japanese taught him and his study colleagues in those first days. One of them was about preventing and dealing with sexual harassment(1).

Mr Nguyen Van Binh, currently Deputy Director General, Department of Legal Affairs (Ministry of Labour, War invalids and Social Affairs), shared this story at the workshop on prevention and response to sexual harassment in garment factories co-organised by CARE International in Vietnam, Vietnam General Confederation of Labour, and the Center for Development and Integration (CDI) in Ha Noi on 27 March, 2018. Long dedicated to fighting gender-based discrimination in general and preventing/handling sexual harassment in particular, he must admit that while sexual harassment is a universal issue, many countries, including Vietnam, have overlooked this issue.

Mr. Nguyen Van Binh speaking at a CARE’s workshop late March 2018 on sexual harassment prevention & response – @2018 CARE in Vietnam

Research by CARE and other organisations and law firms show that sexual harassment in the workplace does exist and negatively affects workers’ mental health and income, which in turn damages employers’ productivity and profits as their employees have to take longer leaves or quit jobs. Even harassed employees who choose to keep silence and continue working are able to put full effort into their works. A recent research by CARE in Cambodia revealed that sexual harassment cost the country’s garment industry 89 million USD, or an equivalent of 0.52% of Cambodia’s GDP in 2015. In Viet Nam, the International Labour Organisation disclosed that garment factories with less violence and harassment tend to earn higher profits than those with more.

An yet, we have not yet witnessed positive signals from the practical use of the Code of Conduct on Sexual Harassment in the workplace that was issued in 2015 by the Ministry of Labour, the Invalids and Social Affairs, and Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry in 2015. According to a CARE research in 2017 conducted by Duane Morris law firm, the state of compliance and application of the Code can be divided into three groups. Group 1 consists of garment factories who are usually requested by international brands to refer to the Code of Conduct of these brands themselves; Group 2 includes factories that just copy and paste the whole Code of Conduct from Vietnam’s Labour Code to their internal policy; and the final one who “does nothing”.

There are quite a number of reasons leading to the overlook of sexual harassment by factories and firms. In Mr Binh’s words, no matter how big the economic damage is (such as the case of 89 million USD damage in Cambodia), it is likely that business owners will merely think it is not their problem. It is not their damage. Another reason that many experts and others agreed upon is the public perception of social and cultural responsibilities. For example, some gesture deemed as sexual harassment in one place can be seen as a harmless joke elsewhere.
Another crucial factor is the lack of legal provisions. The 2012 Labour Code of Viet Nam included four articles related to sexual harassment in the workplace, yet it has not provided a unified definition of sexual harassment nor does it pointed out behaviors considered as sexual harassment. It also falls short of a clear stipulation of obligations and responsibilities of employers. Neither does it provide a defined penalty frame for the harassers. In addition, “the workplace” is only limited to the premise of the office or headquarter or factory, and does not include other work-related settings such as a company party at a restaurant, workers’ dormitory, online harassment among coworkers, etc. Policymakers and practitioners in the field of anti-sexual harassment in Vietnam, however, agree that one of the biggest obstacles lie in the mixed usually low capabilities and awareness of the stakeholders in identifying and handling sexual harassment in the workplace.

Joint efforts are required to ensure sexual harassment-free workspace – @CARE Cambodia

To change the status quo, it is obvious that multiple measures should be introduced through joint efforts of lawmakers, policy makers, employers, workers’ union, international and local organisations as well as the media.

If Vietnam is to go further and successfully into the globalisation competition, its factories have to be bolder in cutting costs and enhancing productivity. That is why the sooner the sexual harassment problem is addressed, the earlier the employers can earn benefits and Vietnam get closer to fulfilling its global and domestic commitments on protecting basic human rights.

Learn more about the project Enhancing Women’s Voice to Stop Sexual Harassment here.