Fatima, a 30-year old mother of two, is subjected almost each day to lewd suggestions and unwanted touching from her boss. Pressing charges against him is out of question because she fears losing her job.
Sexual harassment is one aspect of the hard conditions suffered by women working in the private sector in Syria, of whom a large percentage permanently feel threatened with being fired.
Ninety one percent of a representative sample of 140 women working in the private sector in Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast of Syria, reported job insecurity. Employers violate social insurance and labour laws because the rules are not strictly enforced. Workers are also unaware of their legal rights. In such conditions, women become more vulnerable leading to an increased amount of many of verbal and/or physical harassment.
These were the major findings of a survey conducted by al-Wahda newspaper in Latakia for the purpose of this investigative report. It explored the working conditions of women in 758 factories registered with the Department of Industry in Latakia.
About 167.660 women work in the private sector in Syria, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Fatima had being carrying polymer sacks of 22 kg each for weeks when she was diagnosed with lumbar disc hernia. Her boss refused to pay her sickness compensation but assigned her with secretarial tasks that include ushering visitors in, preparing tea and coffee and cleaning his office. She works eight hours a day for 5.000 SL ($ 100) a month. This is below the minimum wage of 6.100 SL.
After her husband’s death, Fatima was left alone to raise her two children and to pay for rent and food. She needs her job badly and to keep it she has to endure the harassment in silence, she says.
“Fatima’s case is similar to that of thousands of women working in the private sector, whose dream of joining the active workforce has turned out to be a nightmare,” states Kinda Shammat, a lawyer and Women’s Rights activist.
“Law enforcement is poor, as a result, employers break the law in impunity and women, as well as men, suffer injustice. But in the case of women, they often suffer more”. Latakia private sector survey
Al-Wahda newspaper questionnaire was completed by a representative sample of 140 women workers in the private sector in Latakia.
Participants had to state whether they were registered with the social insurance office or not, whether they have they signed a letter of resignation prior to being appointed, whether they were subjected to verbal and/or physical harassment, whether they enjoyed job security, and whether they preferred working in a public or private establishment.
The study showed that 83% of the workers were not registered with the social insurance office, and 67.8% had signed a letter of resignation before taking the job. Among those women, 22.8% said they were verbally and/or physically harassed. Harassment included derogatory insults, jokes or short text messages (sms), sexual gestures, in addition to unwanted touching.
Approximately 91% of the workers said they didn’t have job security, and the same percentage said they would prefer to work in the public sector which offers better conditions regarding job security and personal decency.
In a parallel study conducted by the Youth Research Center of Al-Thawra Youth organization, 70.5% of young participants said they consider the public sector an ideal employer, despite the fact that the private sector sometimes offers better opportunities. Five thousand Syrian families participated in the survey from all over the country.Sexual harassment
Salam works in an embroidery factory in Latakia, but she hates going to work and feels stressed because of her boss’s indecent behavior. She says that “He keeps flirting with me, praising my body, caressing my hair and touching me.” But Salam refuses to file a complaint against him for fear of becoming the center of a scandal and getting fired.
Lina, a secretary, faces the same problem with her manager. “I spend several hours with him in the office. I am so tense all the time and keep thinking how I can avoid his dirty looks and keep his hands off me,” she says.
Participants in al-Wahda survey in Latakia said that suggestive looks, words and gestures and/or direct physical assault, are degrading and intimidating. Women also feel intimidated when reading announcements expressing a company’s preference for employing young women, or a “good looking lady.”
“Employers are in a powerful position because they know those women need the job badly, and with the leniency in law enforcement, employees feel trapped and helpless,” says lawyer Lama Ali.
“There are no official studies in Syria or figures on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace, and with the victims’ silence, it is difficult to fight this phenomenon,” says lawyer Kinda Shammat.
Damascus and Latakia judicial records show that only one lawsuit was filed for sexual harassment between 2003and 2006 by two young women against their employer in Damascus in 2004.
“Harassment is a very sensitive issue in our society. This explains why harassers are not legally pursued. In addition, women are discouraged from pressing charges because they are convinced that assailants won’t be punished. It is so difficult for a woman to prove she was harassed as the acts often happen in the absence of witnesses, especially when there is a physical assault,” says Lama Ali.
“The Syrian law does not consider sexual verbal interactions or suggestive physical gestures criminal acts, and therefore they are not penalized whether they happen in the workplace or elsewhere,” explains lawyer Daed Moussa. “There is no definition of sexual harassment in the Syrian penal code therefore there is no legal ground to consider it a criminal act. The Ninth Title in the Penal Code refers to moral offenses in Chapter One under ‘Offenses against Decency’ which include – articles 489 to 508 – rape, decadence, kidnapping, seduction, deflowering, and violation of the sanctity of private places of women which could amount to a physical attack,” explains Daed Moussa.
Acts that amount to sexual harassment are only described in Chapter One under immoral offenses against minors, the lawyer says.
“Article 505 in Chapter One imposes a prison sentence on touching or fondling a girl or a boy less than 15 years old without their consent, while article 506 imposes a one to ten days imprisonment for offering an indecent job or using obscene words when talking to a girl or a boy less than 15 years old,” adds Moussa. Those two articles do not concern adults.
In addition to the lack of definition of sexual harassment, the law does not address the problem of violence against women, and does not protect female workers against gender discrimination or violence in the workplace. Offenders are not punished and there are no public or non-governmental associations to provide assistance, support, shelter or guidance for women victims of violence. All these conditions make the situation difficult for women who continue to suffer in silence.
“We need to organize awareness campaigns against sexual harassment in all its aspects in different settings whether in the workplace, in the street or elsewhere. We have to encourage media involvement to raise awareness. We must study and learn from the experiences of the victims,” suggests Professor Hoda al-Jasem, a specialist in education and sociology.
The need to break the silence is so important in our society, says lawyer Lama Ali. “Even if the penal code imposed harder punishments for sexual offences, would our society accept the audacity of a woman standing before court and describing in details how she was assaulted?” asks the lawyer Women deprived of the right to social insurance coverage
“The private sector often ignores labor law regulations especially those related to social insurance coverage,” says lawyer Daed Moussa. Most working women, the lawyer explains, are victim of law violation because they do not have work contracts. They are likely to be working for long hours for low wages without any legal protection from dismissal.
The figures of the Department of Social Insurance in Latakia show that 6,595 women and 24,000 men benefit from social insurance coverage. But al-Wahda survey revealed that 83% of women workers were not registered with the social insurance department.
Commenting on al-Wahda survey findings, Ismail Ghanem, the manager of the social insurance department thinks this percentage is plausible. “Factory owners and private employers are resourceful in finding ways to avoid paying social insurance contributions,” he says.
“They have installed cameras that alert them before our inspectors enter the factory so they can hide workers or make them leave through backdoors. They lure workers and promise them higher salaries if they accept not to be registered with the social insurance office,” he says.
“Even when workers are covered by social insurance, their declared salaries are much lower than their actual wages; this way, employers reduce the compensation they may have to pay in case workers were fired or suffered a work accident. Workers accept this situation under pressure or because they do not know it violates their legal rights,” Ghanem explains.
The social insurance coverage is hard to attain a dream for many workers, especially women. Zeinab works for eight hours per day with ten female workers in a basement that is rather dark and badly ventilated, in Latakia. But what mostly worry them are not the very difficult conditions of the workplace but rather the permanent threat of being dismissed at any moment, in the absence of social insurance coverage. The workers think that the situation is hopeless; none of them had such coverage except two relatives of the owner.
“The workshop has two doors. The main entrance is equipped with a camera and an intercom, and we have another door that leads to the alley,” says Zeinab. “When an inspector arrives, we have to leave quickly using the back door,” she adds.
Safaa worked for three years in a business office in Latakia, then decided to resign before she got fired without getting any compensation. “The manager changed his attitude towards me after I got married. The situation became unbearable when I got pregnant. He used to scold me about anything I did and keep grumbling about my pregnancy. I felt he was about to dismiss me, and preferred to leave before that happened,” she says.
Safaa’s manager, who asked not to be named, finds the social insurance law unfavorable for employers in general. He said that the law imposes substantial financial obligations for as long as the worker lives. Women in his opinion leave their job or put less effort into work after they get married, become pregnant or give birth. This is why he prefers not to employ women, and if he does, he won’t provide them social insurance coverage.
Social insurance coverage law applies to workshops and factories that employ more than 5 workers. The regulations require a 21% cut of the salary; 14% by the employer and 7% by the worker. In this case workers in the private sector will have a similar coverage of those working in the public sector, Ghanem explains.
Researcher Souad Kheiba assures that private employers in many workshops, factories, companies or clinics, refuse to provide workers, especially women, with social insurance coverage. “This makes them abler to impose their conditions regarding appointments, dismissals and holidays. Poverty, unemployment and job scarcity force workers to accept such unfair conditions,” Kheiba says.