European Union Tells Members to Bar Sex Harassment

A landmark decision in Europe directs European Union members to institute laws banning sexual harassment in the workplace. Some countries are expected to balk, claiming protection of women at work could be too costly for businesses.

Cecile Greboval

(WOMENSENEWS)-In a recent landmark decision, the European Union Parliament equated sexual harassment with discrimination and decreed that member states must establish laws that would prevent such harassment in the workplace.

In April, the parliament issued a binding directive-meaning that EU members are obligated under the terms of the EU treaty-to develop their own national frameworks for interpreting and enforcing a new sexual harassment law. The directive extends the scope of a 1976 directive on equality in the workplace and establishes guidelines for sanctions and legal action, as well as for compensation, with no upper limit.

In addition, employers will now be obligated to set up preventative measures against sexual harassment and to provide "equality" reports to employees. The directive also instructs member nations to establish agencies-similar to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-to promote equality and enforce anti-discrimination laws, while adding new safeguards for workers wishing to take family leave.

"This is a big leap forward in the EU. To the American ear it doesn't sound big, but it is," says James Passamano, an attorney and professor of European law at Rice University in Texas. "Before, it was up to individual member states to decide how to enforce the broader notion of equal treatment as put forth in 1976. Now, the union is saying, ‘We view harassment as a part of the equality issue.' It is elevated to a union-wide concern and it requires member states to have uniform laws and remedies."

European women's groups hailed the decision, as well, but suggested that more work remains. They are pushing for more comprehensive laws that will allow class action suits. Right now, individuals can bring sexual discrimination suits, but an organization cannot bring suit on behalf of a group of individuals. Goals also include the incorporation of gender equality into every aspect of a nation's governance.

The European Union is a political and economic union first established in the 1950s. With 15 member countries, the EU includes most nations in Western Europe. Currently, 13 Eastern and Southern European countries are preparing for membership.

Nearly Half of European Women Faced Harassment

The new directive comes on the heels of a study on discrimination in the workplace for the European Commission. The study found that close to 50 percent of European women believed they had been victims of sexual harassment at least once in their working lives.

For women's rights groups, the decision represents a tremendous victory. "This was the first time that the women's lobby had real influence. We could approach the ministers and have a direct dialogue," explains Cecile Greboval, policy coordinator at the European Women's Lobby, a Brussels-based association of 3,000 members throughout the European Union.

In the Parliament, the European Women's Lobby found a champion in Anna Diamantopoulou, commissioner for employment and social affairs. "She was quite a force in driving this measure," says Carl Vincent, an EU parliamentary law expert based in London. "She knows that in some member states [harassment] still goes on quite a lot."

The next step, according to EU policy, will involve the drafting of laws at the national level. Since the EU does not legislate directly, the member states will have to determine how to implement the ruling. Vincent said the impact of the new directive could be profound, particularly in nations, such as Greece and Portugal, which have lagged behind other Western nations in establishing mechanisms to prevent discrimination in the workplace.

"In the Netherlands and in the UK, there are rather sophisticated laws that respond to many aspects of gender and other types of discrimination, but other nations do not have these in place," Vincent said.

Anti-Harassment Laws Seen by Some as Adding Costs to Business

Some nations have hesitated to establish family leave policies and equal pay for equal work statutes for reasons that go beyond cultural norms. Many political and business leaders share the perception that such laws will add to the cost of doing business. Nations competing for foreign direct investment often market themselves to corporate site selection teams as ideal locations because of lower labor costs. Therefore, any legal initiative believed to add to these costs is not welcome.

"Italy and Portugal, for example, are interested in attracting heavy manufacturing companies that are looking to lower their labor costs and their legislatures don't want to impose sanctions on industry because they believe it will be a deterrent for foreign direct investment," Passamano said.

Women's rights groups said that inclusion of such provisions will not drive up the cost of doing business and that fostering a workplace in which all employees feel valued and safe will contribute to increased productivity.

"Inclusion of such laws should in no way impact cost of doing business, so this is not a legitimate concern," said Greboval. "There are many studies, including one by the World Bank, that show that if gender inequality disappeared, the general well-being will improve, as will efficiency and productivity."

Despite some nations' objections, the EU has taken its anti-discrimination stance.

"The EU is saying we will establish a minimum level of dignity in the workplace. We want workers to be free of harassment and, if they aren't, there are sanctions and fines," explained Passamano.

However, with foreign direct investment in Europe down approximately 40 percent in the last year, concerns remain that economic interests will intervene.

Member nations have until 2005 to put laws on their books. Meanwhile, the new law allows individuals to seek legal recourse now in their national courts by citing EU law, which supercedes national law.

"The national courts are bound by the treaty to apply EU law in the national court," said Passamano. "It's like someone enforcing federal laws in the state court-they have the same power."

Ann Moline is a freelance writer in Alexandria, Va.

For more information:

European Women's Lobby:
(In English and French)

The European Union Online:
(In 11 languages)