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So. Africa: Employers urged to ensure complainants of sexual harassment do not feel that their grievances are ignored or trivialised

“Numsa strike against sexual harassment is a ‘powerful moment in labour history”17 July 2019

What does it require to get management to take a sexual harassment complaint seriously? If the recent National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa (Numsa) strike is anything to go by, it takes about 290 striking workers remaining underground without food and clean water for nine days. From June 19 to 27, an underground strike was staged at the Lanxess chrome mine near Rustenburg in North West, during which workers demanded that management immediately suspend and discipline an alleged perpetrator of sexual harassment. It took nine days for an agreement to be reached and for union members to return to work. This is a most extraordinary show of strength, and a moment of exceptional unity, by workers in support of a comrade who experienced sexual harassment. The workers, both men and women, were demanding that a longstanding sexual harassment matter be dealt with by the mine management. 

When one considers some of the hard-won advances that have been made in the workplace to prevent and deal with the scourge of sexual harassment, it is astounding that this type of protest was required to enforce a woman worker’s right to safety and dignity…Asanda Benya, who has undertaken a study on women workers in the Rustenburg mines, indicates that women working in the mines remain predominantly in the lower-paying ranks, with many working underground. Underground female miners are generally managed by male mine captains and shift bosses, which has been identified as a fraught power situation that renders them particularly vulnerable.

…In the context of a Constitution that is founded on values of human dignity and the Employment Equity Act, which recognises that harassment of an employee is a form of unfair discrimination, it is astounding that workers had to go to these lengths to be heard. The act places a duty on employers to eliminate unfair discrimination in the work environment. And the Amended Code of Good Practice on the Handling of Sexual Harassment Cases in the Workplace, issued by the minister of labour in 2005 in terms of the Employment Equity Act, takes this even further. The code places an obligation on employers to create a safe environment for female workers, as well as ensure that the workplace respects the dignity of employees and that complainants of sexual harassment will not feel that their grievances are ignored or trivialised or fear reprisals. It states that policies should be in place, employees should know about them, and that these policies should spell out that there are consequences for alleged perpetrators, which can include disciplinary action and dismissal. Employers must clarify procedures for reporting sexual harassment and must take action to eliminate it once a report has been made.