Vulnerability of female Polish migrant workers to sexual harassment

Vulnerability of polish migrant workers

Female migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment at work. Despite the growing relevance and recognition of this problem, studies explicitly addressing sexual harassment of workers are scarce. An exploratory study has been carried out by FairWork. It highlights the situation of female Polish workers in the Netherlands. Sexual harassment is one of the signals that could indicate bad working conditions and/or labour exploitation.

Fair Work commissioned a qualitative research based on interviews with female Polish workers. The aim was to understand the subjective experiences of Polish women workers regarding sexual harassment at the work (related) place. The study also sheds light on the mechanisms that underlie the vulnerability of migrant women for sexual harassment. This study focused on Polish women, but FairWork also receives signals of sexual harassment from female migrant workers from Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania.

How common is sexual harassment?
According to the Dutch Center for Big Data Statistics (CBS) 80 thousand women of Polish origin are registered in the Dutch population register (May 2016). Besides them, there is also a large group of seasonal workers which does not register in the Netherlands.

Polish research shows over 87% of women in Poland has experienced some form of sexual harassment. Dutch research by Rutgers and Movisie shows 61% of Dutch women had experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment. Research on the extent of the problem among women migrant workers in the Netherlands is not available (yet).

In the Netherlands, employers are required to protect workers against sexual harassment and its adverse effects.

Forms of sexual harassment
Polish migrant women in the Netherlands deal with many different forms and degrees of sexual harassment. Respondents have been facing: physical assault, verbal abuse, nonverbal sexual gestures, threats and/or inappropriate proposals.

“He (a colleague) came to me to hug me, etc. When I pushed him away, he told me if I kept doing that, he would go to Dirk (Dirk is our boss) and he will talk to him because he is his friend and I would be fired.” (Magda, 23)

Social-cultural norms
Respondents often struggle with feelings of shame and guilt. The moral issues and taboos of sexual harassment refer to the socio-cultural norms about female sexuality in Polish society. According to these standards, women who are sexual harassed often are condemned. Male unwanted behaviour, however, is often justified.

“There are things you will not talk about easily. A woman who feels intimidated, certainly will not tell everyone how she feels or how he (the perpetrator) behaves towards her. People can take it (her feelings or experiences) the wrong way because they do not really know or do not understand 100% how things work.” (Ola, 25)

Underlying factors
Several intertwined factors lie underneath the sexual harassment of female immigrants in the Netherlands: specific working/living conditions (for example, housing arranged by the agency or boss), strong sense of dependency on the job, strong hierarchy at the work place, the misogynistic environment in the work place and the lack of official company policy for preventing and dealing with sexual harassment.

“The girls just laughed about it… They laughed at me. I saw them whispering and then they looked at me. No one did anything about it … I had a hard time, because I felt they thought of me as a slut and treated me like one … I had no support. ” (Ula, 26)

These factors also describe a situation that is a breeding ground for other problems: it could make these women vulnerable to labour exploitation.

Coping strategies
The interviews show that Polish female migrants mostly use an individual approach in dealing with sexual harassment. Sometimes they seek help from family or friends. Respondents almost never turn to a superior and rarely submit an official complaint. In addition, they describe several limiting factors, such as a lack of/insufficient knowledge of their rights and of Dutch society or the fear of losing their jobs.

“When I announced to have submitted a complaint, a few people came to me to give me a pat on the back, but I knew I would not get real support. They (colleagues) said: “It is great you have done this”, “I am glad you were not afraid”, “I knew that if anyone could do it, it would be you. You know how it is … I’ll stay here for another year and then get married in Poland…”. This is a little support, but not quite.” (Dorota, 35)

The report recommends informing migrant women, executives in companies and care givers about sexual harassment. This could lead to targeted and effective assistance. Some examples of issues needed to be addressed:

  • What is sexual harassment, and which forms occur;
  • What can a person who is facing sexual harassment do;
  • The possibilities at workplaces to prevent sexual harassment and to improve the situation of victims;
  • Information about rights, legal and social system, (external) support;
  • The assessment of risk factors for sexual harassment.