Sex at the Office: Globalising an Age-Old Problem

By Harriet Fisher

Now Daily

Anita says she is looking for another job, which is a surprise to all her friends, colleagues and family members.

Employed by an international industrial organisation as a secretary and receptionist for more than 10 years, she can be considered an achiever in a country and economy where 86 percent of the people are employed as street vendors and domestic servants.

Anita earns thousands of dollars in monthly salary and allowances, rents a townhouse in Harare, sends her daughter to a private boarding school and has just bought a car, which her unemployed husband also uses as a VIP taxi to earn money. In honour of her financial contributions, she has been appointed a deaconess in charge of orphans at the Pentecostal church which she attends regularly.

Problems started for Anita recently when the organisation held its annual convention in Zimbabwe. After weeks of relentless preparation and sleepless nights, the conference was a resounding success. Most delegates thanked her for doing extra work to get them good flights, hotels and attending to the usual last-minute visa challenges.

Then came the problem. Her boss asked her if she was coming for drinks at a trendy restaurant after the meeting. Anita politely refused.

“I did not want to be the only female from the office in the company of twenty drunken men,” she said. “It had happened. My boss got drunk and lost control. He was sending me to the bar to get him more brandy throughout the evening, saying the waiters were taking too long for his liking. Then he groped me and made sexually suggestive dances and lewd comments. So, yes, I was wary. In fact, I just wanted to be home early to be with my husband, family and friends, since it was a Saturday.”

The next Monday, Anita was summoned by her angry boss and accused of ‘deserting the delegates’ without good cause and threatened with the sack.

Kate Nhema of the activist group Women’s Circle, which tracks female labour trends says abusive bosses and sexual predators are taking advantage of cultural differences under globalization to perpetrate crimes.

“Zimbabwe does not have that much of a café culture. If a married woman decides to go out for dinner or drinks with her work colleagues, clients or friends, she may have a lot of explaining to do to her husband and family,” said Nhema.

She added: “Just the way a woman dresses, socializes at work or carries herself can attract uninvited sexual attention and harassment. If she dresses in slacks, smokes and takes alcohol, she may be labelled loose and attract a lot of unwanted attention and abuse. In some cultures people talk openly about sex, but the experience of many Zimbabwean women is that sex is a taboo subject. Anita knew her colleagues would be making sexual innuendoes at her expense all night and decided to avoid the event altogether. Many women are being forced to stay away from company functions because of this pervasive harassment. Some men will just stare at you, or comment about the way you dress in an abusive way.”

Other office workers told Anita that the boss felt slighted because he had been telling everyone that she was ‘his’. In fact, she discovered, he had long had a crush on her, the reason he often created weekend emmergencies to force her to come to the office when other people were not there. Later, he would tell some of the workers he had had sex in the office with her.

“My boss often called me when I was already home, especially on Friday evenings, saying he had lost his safe keys or could not find documents on his computer. That meant I had to make it to the office on Saturday when everyone else was away. Most of the times, he would ask me about my private life, about my husband and ask me if I was happy in my marriage. When I was short of money, he always helped out. He warned me against getting pregnant as that could ruin my chances of promotion,” said Anita.

The problem for people like Anita and most other harassed employees of international organisations is what to do about the abuse.

“There’s nowhere to report,” says Nhema. The Women’s Circle tried to intervene in Anita’s case, and has now produced a detailed report on the plight of transnational workers. “When we confronted Anita’s boss, it only seemed to make the problem worse. The boss accused Anita of ‘having ideas’ about him, of being ‘culturally backward’ and ‘too suspicious’ of his motives when he was only trying to help her get promoted to administration officer. He said he had wanted her to network informally, after hours, and meet people who could make it happen but she had refused.”

Nhema said most workers of international organisations and multi-national corporations who were sexually abused and harassed by their bosses faced numerous challenges.

“Most of these workers cannot be unionized or encouraged to join support groups because the most basic reason for joining a union, which is remuneration, is not there. Many of them, like Anita, earn good salaries and think they have no need for trade unions. Then there are the usual cultural differences. For example, in Zimbabwe, kissing and hugging fellow workers is frowned upon, but in other cultures that is considered normal, it’s even expected,” Nhema said.

Several other women interviewed reported similar victimization. Attempts by some to assert their rights and protect others have only resulted in them being labelled ‘feminists’ or ‘rebels’, often being denied promotion or being transferred to other countries against their wishes.

© Now Daily 2015. All Rights Reserved.

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