His statement was in reaction to a stand taken by Women, Family and Community Development Minister Shahrizat Abdul Jalil who wants to legislate laws against sexual harassment at the workplace.
With his callous statement, Ismail has only made it obvious that gender discrimination is still a big, big problem in Malaysia. There is no political will power to consciously tackle this workplace menace if the views of Government servants in the likes of Ismail is considered.
Ismail's remark goes to show that sexual harassment is viewed as a 'remeh' or trivial matter. One that is harmless and needs no action to be taken against. How could saving a woman's self-respect and honour make any work place environment dull and rigid?
Is the Labour Department chief categorically saying that he condones sexual harassment at the workplace? In that case, one can only wonder how many sexual harassment cases have taken place at the Labour Department, without any action taken against the perpetrator.
'... dull, rigid working environment'
Having reflected his ignorance on the issue of sexual harassment, the Labour Department director-general has only made it clear that the issue of gender biasness is a problem that must be addressed immediately without any political interference. To 'pep up' the working environment at the expense of women employees is an insult to all women, be they working or home makers.
The Labour Department director-general is 'blur' to the commitments made to preserve women's dignity at the Beijing Platform for Action at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. One of the 'vow' taken is to remove legal obstacles and gender discriminatory practice.
The Labour Department head it appears is just as ignorant about the fact that Malaysia is signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) when he let out his thoughts that a bill on sexual harassment at workplace "could only lead to a dull and rigid working environment".
Ismail's sexist outlook reminds us of the sexual harassment charge brought against former Science, Technology and Innovation Minister Dr Jamaluddin Jarjis (left) in April last year. The case, however, was closed after the victim retracted her statutory declaration saying she was "used" to Jamaluddin's "rough way" and jokes . Do such display of power lead to victims of sexual harassment becoming 'paralysed' under threats and fear of losing their jobs?
If power is used to silence women who suffer sexual harassment, then an Act must be put in place to protect all women, but the Act itself must in no way come with loopholes that instead cause women to keep silent each time they experience sexual harassment because seeking justice then becomes a joke.
Not 'trivial' issue
For over a decade now, the women's groups in Malaysia have been advocating for the Sexual Harassment Act in place of the Code Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace. The latter was introduced by the Human Resources Ministry in 1999 and was adopted by only a small
Women's Development Collective in its book 'A Pioneering Step - Sexual Harassment and The Code of Practice in Malaysia published in 2003 states that two years after The Code was launched (in 2001) only about one percent of employers nationwide had set up internal mechanisms to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, a mere 4,500 companies out of the 400,000 employers registered with the Social Security Organisation.
In spite of the many pleas from women's groups on why sexual harassment needs to be addressed seriously, there has been little support from employers on implementing the Code at their workplaces. Sexual harassment instead is viewed as a 'small matter' between office colleagues or between female employees and their male employers.
Why is sexual harassment not taken seriously by employers? Why is the issue of sexual harassment a butt of jokes to the male politicians? Does sexual harassment not denote an act of violence against women at the workplace? Do male employees and male employers feel threatened with the capabilities of their female staff that they have to resort to sexual harassment?
Respect women's rights
There is no denying that sexual harassment has become a threatening problem with serious repercussions facing women workers. A research carried out from 2000 to 2001 revealed that 35% of the 1,483 respondents from six pioneer companies had experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment at their workplace.
The sexual harassment ranged from verbal lewd jokes to physical harassment. It leaves the victims feeling fear, confused, shocked and angry.
Until and unless legal force is employed in eradicating sexual harassment at workplaces, cases of women suffering, and most of them in silence from such harassment will continue, severely affecting the productivity of these women.
In 2001, a coalition of Women NGOs, Joint Action Group Against Violence against Women (JAG-VAW) submitted a memorandum, a thoroughly researched proposal for sexual harassment bill to the Human Resource Ministry.
The bill is intended to replace the existing voluntary Code Practice on the Prevention and Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.
At present, women represent 36% of the Malaysian workforce and it is their physical, emotional and mental well being at the workplace that will determine the level of their productivity.
JESWAN KAUR is a journalist who spent many years writing for the mainstream media before deciding to 'break free' and put pen to paper to focus on and fight for issues that are conveniently marginalised by the powers-that-be.