Certainly, sexual harassment irrespective of what, how and against whom, is against the law. Some types of sexual harassment may also be offences under criminal law including indecent exposure, stalking, sexual assault and obscene or threatening communications, such as phone calls, letters, emails, text messages and postings on social networking site. The importance of this issue gives the employers an extra responsibility to effectively prevent and respond to harassment claims.

Examples of sexual harassment (include but are not limited to)

  • Verbal incl. epithets, derogatory jokes or comments, slurs or unwanted sexual advances, invitations or comments
  • Visual incl. derogatory and/or sexually oriented posters, photography, cartoons, drawing or gestures
  • Physical incl. unwanted touching, blocking normal movement or interfering with work because of refusal of sexual advances or sexual orientation
  • Threats and demands to submit to sexual requests as a condition of continued employment or to avoid discipline

How to respond

The following steps may be followed to effectively prevent and respond to harassment claims:

  1. In case of complain, respond immediately
  2. Involve outside legal counsel experienced in handling such claims
  3. Listen attentively to allegations of harassment and treat the victim with respect
  4. Investigate the complaint
  5. Let the circumstances guide your judgment
  6. Promote consistent treatment
  7. Keep complete and accurate documentation
  8. Keep the senior management fully informed
  9. Adopt a “no dating at work” policy
  10. Reevaluate your insurance, sexual harassment policy, general harassment policy and complaint procedures to fit your company’s needs

It is sad that sexism or sexual harassment are still widely unreported in the workplace. Specifically, polling by Opinium Research has revealed that (58%) of women who have experienced sexual harassment did not report it to their company. Employees often do not report such incidents because they do not know how to report it or are unsure of what will happen next. When it comes to seafarers the situation is even more complicated considering the different work environment.  If any seafarer complains of having been the victim of harassment and/or bullying, complaints must be taken seriously and investigated.

All in all, sexual harassment can never be accepted in a society, and shipping is no exception. It can be costly to both seafarers and employers, not only directly but also through the decreased workplace performance or productivity and the reputational harm. It is important that employers take the appropriate measures to minimize such incidents at sea and maximize workplace safety.

Actions taken

In case of a sexual harassment incident onboard, the seafarer can inform the Master or Chief Engineer or/and a helpline for support and advice.  Given that the abusers may be the Master of Chief Engineer, there has to be an independent person who can be approached, for example the company personnel officer. Also, it is important to ensure that companies have a clearly written policy statement on the elimination of harassment including contact information to enable seafarers to report any related incidents.

  •   A 2016 report by ISWAN on crew welfare stressed that bullying, harassment and abuse continue to be key reasons for seafarers seeking help.
  •  On the occasion of the International Woman's Day, the Heads of EU agencies and Joint undertakings announced they commit to zero tolerance towards sexual violence and harassment.
  • A recently punblished guide advises US merchant mariners and shore-based personnel on how to participate in a work environment free of sexual assault, harassment and other prohibited behaviors.
  • ICS, ITF  updated the guidelines for all seafarers on how to eliminate workplace harassment and bullying which may aid women seafarers as well.
  • In late January, the India-based Anglo-Eastern Maritime Training Centre, ISWAN, and WISTA International released a new booklet on building and maintaining gender diversity onboard merchant ships.