Fear of losing their job is holding back women in private businesses from reporting sexual harassment, which is why most complaints concern the public sector, Ombudswoman Maria Stylianou-Lottides said on Monday.

She was speaking at a press conference on the ‘Break the Silence’ information campaign to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, held on International Women’s Day and marking also the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the Ombudsman’s office.

The aim of the campaign is to inform potential victims of their rights and the out-of-court protective mechanisms in place so as to give them the necessary encouragement to break their silence.

Lottides said 80 per cent of complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace were submitted by women, and 20 per cent by men. The public sector accounted for 90 per cent. Private businesses accounted for only for 10 per cent amid fears of unfavourable repercussions at work and concern that the complaint will be made public, she said.

The office had chosen International Women’s Day to make public the findings of an investigation into complaints submitted to her office in the past four years, she added.

These showed that in 39.48 per cent of the cases, the complainant had been satisfied with an intervention by her office. This had been accompanied with suggestions and recommendations for each specific case. These aimed both at addressing each case and relevant services taking the necessary action to protect the complainant from any negative repercussions at work because of the complaint.

One in five, or 19.35 per cent of the cases, were outside her office’s mandate either because they were anonymous or general and vague.

An equal number of complaints remain under investigation. These concern sexual harassment or harassment at work because of gender.

Overall, of the total complaints, 68 per cent involved harassment at work because of gender and the remaining 32 per cent concerned sexual harassment.

Even though a code of practice to prevent and address harassment at work in the public service had been drawn up and submitted by her office in July 2018, it has still not been adopted by 40 per cent of public sector. As a result, the relevant equality committees have not been set up, and complaints are not adequately handled, she said.

That is why she had proposed that all public bodies and organisations immediately adopt the code and set up the committees. Every employer should take every possible measure to prevent, address, terminate and lift the consequences of harassment at work. Failure to address sexual harassment at work makes the employer co-responsible for the actions of the employee against whom a complaint has been filed, she noted.

The labour ministry should consider amending the law, given that the harassment may be from a third party and not someone who qualifies as an employee, she added.

She also urged quick action on a bill to criminalise harassment and stalking. As regards the private sector, Lottides said employers’ associations and trade unions must step up efforts to address the issue.