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Effective complaints procedures

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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Many women do not report violence and harassment, because they doubt their complaint will be dealt with seriously, or they fear they will be stigmatized, lose their job, or face other forms of retaliation.[1] Some women feel embarrassed or humiliated, and, therefore, instead of seeking redress, they avoid the harasser, leave their job, or simply endure the situation. Furthermore, submitting a complaint may be very stressful and may result in re-traumatization, particularly where the burden of proof rests on the complainant.[2]

The presence of effective and gender-responsive complaints procedures reassures victims and witnesses that proper action will be taken and encourages reporting. In this sense, unions can play a significant role in helping to design and support internal complaints procedures. For instance, when union representatives show a serious and supportive attitude towards complainants and witnesses, this can build confidence amongst the workers. Furthermore, unions can cooperate with the employer to ensure a fair complaint and dispute resolution process for both victims and accused perpetrators.

Trust in the complaint system can also be fostered by offering multiple reporting options. This allows complainants to follow the procedure of their choice, depending on their needs and expectations (the degree of formality of the procedure, the involvement of other departments or actors in the organization, or the right to confidentiality).

Promising practices in developing effective complaints systems include the following (EEOC, 2016):

  • Clearly setting out complaints procedures in ways that are accessible to all workers.
  • Ensuring protection against retaliation in formal and informal processes for complainants and others who participate in an investigation.
  • Providing transparency in the complaints process that allows complainants to keep abreast of advances, timeframes involved and outcomes.   
  • Informing workers about available support by worker representatives and their organizations during the complaints process.
  • Shifting the burden of proof to the alleged perpetrator.
  • Providing prompt and proportionate responses where violence and harassment is found to have occurred.
  • Training those in managerial positions to handle complaints and the level at which disputes should be dealt with, as well as appropriate disciplinary actions.

An important part of an effective complaints system is the implementation of gender-responsive investigations.

Promising practices in carrying out investigations include the following:

  • Ensuring investigations are gender-responsive, taking into account gender norms, gender inequalities and the situations of vulnerability and risks faced by women with diverse identities at work.
  • Ensuring that investigations are not subject to statutes of limitations or, at minimum, allowing a sufficiently long period of time to file a complaint, in order to ensure that cases of violence and harassment dating back over many years can be heard and investigated.
  • Establishing a transparent and appropriate process for internal and external independent investigations.
  • Training for investigators on gender-based violence related issues or hiring investigators with this expertise.
  • Carrying out the investigation in a transparent manner, documenting all steps taken and communicating the outcomes and recommendations to all relevant parties.
  • Allocating sufficient resources to enable prompt and thorough investigations.
  • Ensuring confidentiality during investigations for all parties involved.

Some workplaces have established confidential complaints committees for the handling of violence and harassment cases. In some countries, such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal, these are required by law.

Promising practices involving the establishment of complaints committees and their functioning suggest the following (Morris and Pillinger, 2016):

  • Undertaking consultations with workers and their organizations prior to setting up a Committee, drawing on expert advice about how to best deal with the sensitive issues of violence and harassment against women and ensuring that women have a voice in the design process.
  • Ensuring gender-balanced membership in the Committee by including women managers, workers and trade union representatives.
  • Establishing effective procedures for the Committee to receive, handle and report on complaints, as well as in carrying out awareness-raising and information activities.
  • Providing members with specific training on investigating cases of sexual harassment.
  • Providing accessible and understandable information about the Committee’s work to employers and workers and their organizations in all relevant languages.

Confidential complaints committees

The role of Workplace Internal Complaints Committees in India (Morris and Pillinger, 2016)

Workplace Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) on sexual harassment are required by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 of India. The law requires that at least half the Committee members are women.

In many cases, the Committees have proved to be an important, early step towards giving workers a voice and suggesting solutions to organizational issues. There have been other effects as well, as the establishment of a committee can be a first step for trade unions to play a role in the workplace. However, experience has shown the importance of committees being open to scrutiny, if they are to function effectively.

Negotiations for workplace committees in the Philippines[3]

Unions in the Philippines were instrumental in lobbying for the Anti-Sexual Harassment Law of 1995 and, in recent years, they have sought to implement the law, which requires the establishment of workplace Committees on Decorum and Investigation (CODI). The role of the CODIs is to receive complaints of sexual harassment, investigate in line with the prescribed procedures, submit a report of its findings with recommendations and to take a lead in raising awareness on sexual harassment and how it can be prevented.

In the electronics sector, two collective agreements were signed between unions and employers. The first was signed by Mitsumi Philippines, located in an export processing zone, and Mitsumi Philippines Workers Union (MPWU), leading to the establishment of a CODI, regular consultations with workers, and awareness-raising on sexual harassment across the company. The second collective agreement on sexual harassment was agreed to between the Katolec Philippines Corporation, in the electronic industry and the Katolec Philippines Labor Union (KAPLU) and led to the formation of a CODI in the company.

In addition, an anti-sexual harassment project run by the Associated Labor Unions (ALU) was initiated because of growing evidence of violence at work, relating particularly to sexual harassment, job discrimination, domestic violence and the abuse of women migrant workers. The project resulted in the implementation of six company policies, 89 implementing rules and regulations, and eight collective agreements with anti-sexual harassment provisions benefitting over 5,075 workers, 87 per cent of whom were women. In addition, more than 259 CODIs were established in the public and private sectors, benefitting 81,398 workers, 58,444 of whom were women. Finally, sexual harassment was included in the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) company inspection system, with an inventory on government monitoring mechanisms, company policies and practices, and programs in implementation.

[1] In a recent national Australian survey on sexual harassment, 17 per cent of workers experiencing sexual harassment in the last five years had made a formal complaint and of these workers, almost one in five were labelled as a troublemaker (19%), were ostracised, victimised or ignored by colleagues (18%) or resigned from their job (17%). In one in five cases (19%) the formal report or complaint brought no consequences for the perpetrator. Australian Human Rights Commission (2018) op cit. p.9

[2] See for example, EEOC (2016) op cit; Trades Union Congress (TUC) /Everyday Sexism (2016), op cit; Pillinger (2016 & 2017), op cit.

[3] Based on case studies prepared by UNI, IndustriALL and IUF, cited in Pillinger (2017a) op cit.