EU tightens sex harassment law
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Legislation designed to protect workers from sexual harassment in the workplace is being introduced across the Europe Union.
Under the law employers will be required to prove, in response to an employee's complaints, that they had taken all possible preventive measures against sexual harassment.
In addition, employers will also be financially liable for cases of misconduct.
The EU directive, approved on Wednesday and due to come into force in 2005, will also give courts a freer hand to award financial compensation to abused employees.
Studies show that up to 50 percent of women and 10 percent of men in Europe have experienced some type of sexual harassment, ranging from the most common -- sexual remarks -- to the most severe -- assault or rape.
But national estimates vary widely, partly highlighting the lack of an agreed idea of what amounts to sexual harassment.
They range from an estimated 11 percent in Denmark and 17 percent in Sweden, to 54 percent in the UK and 81 percent in Austria.
European Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou said: "The general level of awareness of sexual harassment in member states is very poor.
"With this Directive, the EU introduces important new provisions on preventive measures against sex discrimination and sexual harassment.
"Sexual harassment, absent from most national laws, will finally have a name in European law."
The new provisions update a 1976 EU Directive on equality at work.
Under the agreed definition, harassment is "unwanted conduct related to sex with the purposes or effect of affecting the dignity of a person and/or creating an intimidating, hostile, offensive or disturbing environment."
That, says the new rules, amounts to sex discrimination, triggering rights already available to workers who are victims of other forms of sex discrimination banned under EU law.
A study for the European Commission states: "Sexual harassment is common in both southern countries and northern countries (of the EU).
"However, it seems that, save in France and Italy, much less importance is attached to the issue in southern countries and the level of awareness is not very high."
It adds: "Women in southern countries tend to consider that sexual harassment is something they have to put up with because it is part and parcel of being a woman.
"Such a feeling is induced by the attitude of men who do not perceive their behaviour as constituting sexual harassment."
An EU official said sexual harassment was reported more frequently in north European countries, where the phenomenon was widely recognised and not tolerated.
But she added that awareness was rising in southern Europe, where many women had until recently viewed harassment "as something they had to put up with."
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