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You and your Rights – Sexual Harassment in the Commonwealth of the Bahamas

We have seen a great debate unfold in the United States over the last few months as to the rights of working women on the job. The movement is not gender specific nor is it limited to the dominant campaign which has been led by American women. The movement was started by Alyssa Milano, the “Charmed “actress. She fashioned the hash tag metoo and since, it has become a social media sensation. The purpose of the hash tag was to inform the public how pervasive the problem  of sexual harassment is .Today it is a platform for working men and women  to tell their stories of sexual violation and harassment in the workplace. Started by an actress, the # Metoo movement raises very important issues as to workplace safety and the rights of working women and men to work in a “sexual harassment free “environment. It has been characterized as a campaign which was started to expose the alleged sexual abuses of Hollywood powerful media mogul Harvey Weinstein. It has now morphed into a “heat seeking missile” exposing serial sexual abuse in the workplace. Since the Weinstein story broke the United States has witnessed an explosion of similar complaints across America. What about the Bahamas..?

The issue is an important one and in the Bahamas the problem is that workplace sexual harassment is very real. It is fair to conclude that the Bahamas would have the same challenges as any other country when it comes to policing this difficult problem. There is a view that it exists but it will remain unreported because of inadequate workplace protocols and pervasive ignorant attitudes about the problem. Anecdotally we can recall one alleged incident of workplace sexual harassment in high places which bore no fruit. It is nevertheless a continuing concern. A search of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court and the Supreme Courts of the Bahamas, Trinidad and Jamaica reveals few, if any cases dealing specifically with the subject.

Justice Desiree Bernard of the Caribbean Court of Justice said in a paper in 2006.

“Sexual harassment in the workplace is a not too unfamiliar scenario in our region. While victims of sexual harassment can be male or female, women suffer disproportionably. Many young women are exploited and forced into sexual liaisons with their male employers to obtain or retain employment. Sexual favors are the “quid pro quo” for permanent job security or advancement……equal harassment is difficult to identify where women regard a touch on the buttocks or risqué jokes as part of our normal social intercourse. Overall the key ingredient in sexual harassment is the authority which the harasser wields over the victim who is usually at a disadvantage owing to her fragile economic position.”

This state of affairs has largely been met by legislative inaction save in the Bahamas and Belize. In the Bahamas sexual harassment in the workplace is criminalized. This prohibited behavior is policed by the Sexual Offenses and Domestic Violence Act. The law prosecutes sexual harassment in employment by a prospective employer, an actual employer, other employees or a prospective employee. Prohibited conduct includes where an employer solicits sexual favour in a myriad of circumstances and the penalty is a two year term of imprisonment or a fine and/or both. The Attorney General’s fiat is needed to commence a prosecution. If one has been subjected to unwelcome sexual harassment, it is best that you speak to a Lawyer to assess your case. A Lawyer will look to determine whether you can prove the elements of your case.

Finally sexual harassment relief can be obtained even if an employer has been charged under the provisions of the Criminal Law. Civil Litigation is available, should you wish to sue an employer for failing to provide a safe system of work.

Halsbury Chambers