Olya Nikol, 15 September 2021

Anna has been subjected to unwanted sexual remarks by several customers in her job as a sales representative in a reputable company. Often, she finds herself pressured to seek ways to balance her responses against their remarks. Things have become even worse with her manager who has recently started asking her out for dinner and has made numerous comments about her appearance. The manager uses any opportunity to touch her, brush off against her body or stand in very close proximity to her. The behaviour is unpredictable, some days the manager is attentive and polite, some days the manager becomes very aggressive and rude.

Anna is one of 32 % of women in the EU who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.[1] Anna is also one of the women who will probably not take any action to seek her rights. Sexual harassment is an extreme form of violence and is a form of gender-based discrimination that requires specific response.[2] Sexual harassment is a human rights violation that has serious impact on the psychological and physical state of the victims, thus can impact their performance and wellbeing.

In Bulgaria sexual harassment is prohibited in the Constitution[3] and in the Anti-Discrimination legislation.[4] Employers are also obliged to provide equal access, equal pay and working conditions to all employees. Employers are not required under the legislation to adopt and implement anti-sexual harassment policies. The companies in Bulgaria that have such policies or mechanisms are primarily multinational corporations that have extended their policies to the operations of their subsidiaries. It is not clear what the mechanisms in the small and medium businesses in Bulgaria are, but the assumption is that they either resolve the matter within the company or rely on the legal system.

Anna can address the issue by talking to her employer, who has an obligation to take immediate action and address the misconduct.[5] Anna is hesitant to raise the issue as she is not aware of any company policies on the topic. Added to this is the difficulty to prove her case and the fear of retaliation and losing her job. Anna can also bring her case to the Commission of Protection against Discrimination.[6] The problem is that the total number of sexual harassment cases that the Commission has reviewed between 2014 -2018 is 14 [7]  and only 2 in 2019.[8] Some issues in bringing complaints stated in the Commission’s report are: the lack of willingness of victims to report the behaviour due to the economic dependency, lack of witnesses, difficulties to provide evidence and the risk of revictimization of victims in public hearings. Anna’s last option is to bring her claim to the regional court, but given the limited case law in sexual harassment cases, proving her case in the court of law may be even more difficult. The low number of complaints is an indication of low public visibility and lack of awareness on rights of victims. The scope and magnitude of the problem in Bulgaria has not been measured yet. It looks like sexual harassment in the workplace does not exist.

The Gender dimensions of the UN Guiding Principles highlight the importance of states and businesses to adopt and implement a gender perspective in their policies and practices. By taking into consideration the gender framework States have the obligation to assess the impact of discrimination on existing legislation and how it impacts women. States can also provide incentives to businesses to implement a gender-based approach in their operations and business management practices. Business can adopt anti-discrimination policies and grievance mechanisms that are victim-focused and do not serve merely as protection of the company’s reputation. For example, businesses in Bulgaria can work with the Commission on awareness initiatives and improve ways of conducting informal meetings and formal hearings to avoid revictimization of victims.

Despite the above listed options, Anna will remain silent, and will not take any action or will wait until things become unbearable and leave her job. But finding work in the post-COVID-19 environment proves to be very challenging. Given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women, Anna and many other women will be in a very vulnerable position and at a higher risk of discrimination. Whilst the whole world is focusing on economic recovery, the prevalence of sexual harassment will remain hidden in the silence of the victims who experience discrimination every day in the workplace.  Anna, like other women, men and non-binary people has the right to employment and enjoyment of equal rights and opportunities. Instead of battling remarks and sexual advances, Anna could focus on improving her performance, following her career progression and enjoying a quality life. Today, Anna lives in fear of losing her job, in fear of speaking up, in fear that no one will believe her …

So, Anna will keep quiet or leave…

[1] https://fra.europa.eu/en/publication/2014/violence-against-women-eu-wide-survey-main-results-report

[2] Ibid.

[3] The Constitution –  article 6(2)

[4] Закон за защита от дискриминация – The Protection Against Discrimination Act; Article  4(1) and article 5.  – https://www.refworld.org/docid/44ae58d62d5.html

[5]  Закон за защита от дискриминация – The Protection Against Discrimination Act. – article 17. – https://www.refworld.org/docid/44ae58d62d5.html

[6] https://equineteurope.org/author/bulgaria_cpd/

[7] Beijing Report +25 – https://unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/Gender/Beijing_20/Bulgaria.pdf – see page 21

[8] https://www.kzd-nondiscrimination.com/layout/images/stories/2015/otchet/ot4et2703.pdf –  see p.23