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SERATA President’s 16 Days of Activism message: Never have I ever… at work

In this year’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, I have a confession to make.

Never have I ever been comfortable with disclosing about my personal life to my workplace.

Maybe half truths. But never the full truth.

I just didn’t feel safe about opening up about my life.

I was 23 when I secured my first official job. I was still living with my parents, like almost every typical fresh graduate living in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah that was looking to build a career.

Except I wasn’t typical. I had a 3 year old daughter, with a 24 year old man who was still working towards getting his degree across the South China Sea.

I wonder what kind of first impression would I have given if I told my very first boss, at my very first professional job at an audit firm, these details?

Being an introvert, I just didn’t want to divulge these personal details because I knew the kinds of questions that would arise. I dread the judgemental looks.

I wanted to be left alone.

Most of all, I was afraid of being questioned about my life choices, which to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t fully capable of making as I didn’t have the right support or right knowledge.

How much would you know about life at 23? Looking back at those years, I would say, not a lot.

The saddest thing was that the whole time I was trying to find my way around a new world of work, I was battling a different challenge outside of work, and in my own home.

This is my own experience, not just as a young person, but also a young mother and a domestic violence survivor.

It doesn’t matter how ambitious I was at achieving my work or career goals. When you are a domestic survivor that was trying her best to live a normal life like I was, your everyday normal was trying to finally have an hour of peace to keep your sanity intact.

Outside of work (or even while I was interrupted at work!) I was regularly pressured to “take time off from work for 2 weeks so I can spend time” with my then spouse. My rejection of such proposals was later used against me in accusations that I was flirting with a guy at the fitness center. That I wasn’t a good wife.

I was afraid of appearing to be a bad hire. The incompetent person who couldn’t do a thing even though she had a degree. And it did feel like the truth and for many years I wondered why I couldn’t perform “like everybody else”. Like a “normal person” would.

A few years back I realised, because I wasn’t in the same position as everyone else. I wasn’t feeling safe, even at home.

I did feel like I lost so much of my potential in those early years. I was definitely not allowed to feel or act the young person that I was.

Back then, I didn’t even know what I was experiencing or feeling was not normal. I didn’t know that I needed help. And even if I did, I wouldn’t know where to go.

These were the pre-internet days. Even if Facebook was a thing those days, I doubt that my now ex would have allowed me to be on it anyway.

A few days ago, I saw a post on International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 (ILO C190) which focuses on gender-based violence and its impact in the world of work. 

Convention No. 190 brings together equality and non-discrimination with safety and health at work in one instrument, and places human dignity and respect at its core. The Convention recognizes that violence and harassment can constitute a human rights violation or abuse, and provides, for the first time, a single composite concept of violence and harassment (Art. 1) 5. The Convention requires Member States to adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to prevent and address such behaviours in the world of work (Art. 4(2)). This approach envisages action on prevention, protection, enforcement, remedies, guidance, training and awareness raising (Arts 4, 7–11), and takes into account third parties as both victims and perpetrators. In adopting this approach, Convention No. 190 requires States to recognize the different and complementary roles and functions of governments, employers and workers, and their respective organizations, taking into account the varying nature and extent of their respective responsibilities (Arts 4(3) and 9).”

This convention recognizes that violence and harassment can come not only from managers, supervisors, colleagues, peers; but it can also come from third parties such as clients, customers, friends or relatives.

As such, it also recognizes that domestic violence is not a private issue as it can affect health and safety and employment productivity. It highlights that employers actually have a duty of care, and could provide paid leave, help with contacts to support organizations, grant flexible hours, etc. A victim of domestic violence should not have to choose between her safety and her job.

Reading this was so validating for me. Had such a convention existed in those days, I might have been in a completely different career. Or at least be less broken.

However, do note that this Convention has not yet been ratified in Malaysia.

I know that for an average employer in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, they will say “So what? It is none of my business. I cannot afford to be responsible for my employee’s personal problems!”

And if I am being perfectly honest, that is why a majority of businesses here could never be competitive enough for international standards.

Because they don’t understand that employees are their biggest assets. What they see is that being a boss means that they have the right to own an employee’s time and freedom to demand work whenever and wherever, but holds none of the responsibility of being in charge of someone’s life.

My mom was a product of a different generation, and she thought that being employed basically meant that your entire life is now owned by your boss.

I am glad that all Human Resources practitioners I have talked to, do not hold the same view.

At 43 now, I have had my fair share of work experiences, from good to bad.

My first job offer after obtaining my degree was RM500 to be an audit assistant, and tasks included office cleaning. Great cost-cutting tactic by the employer.

I have experienced a boutique hotel general manager who spent a very large portion of the day, every single day, screaming at housekeeping staff. This was highly stressful to listen to and watch. And to add salt to the wound, they couldn’t keep up payments to their suppliers and paid salaries very late. This made it hard for me to keep up with my debt commitments.

I have also experienced losing time to have a proper personal life outside of work, because the job demanded that employees spend at least an extra 3 hours of unpaid overtime work each day for several months in order to satisfy an unrealistic demand by the employer, who kept accepting more jobs without considering the number of employees they actually have. I realised too that they deliberately ensure that your salary is above the coverage limit of the relevant employment law (which was still pretty low at that time at just RM2,000), to justify non-payment of overtime.

I encountered one employer who shouted and banged on the table when I showed him the accounting reports that I have managed to come up with based on the information that I have available within that 2 months I was there. His last bookkeeper apparently had fled. I’m a very calm person, but that irked me so much that I shouted back and told him to keep his money because I quit. Not that I had an employment contract anyway.

I have had employers or supervisors commenting on the size of my breasts, which made me uncomfortable about returning to work.

Looking back, I wish I knew my rights and are empowered to stand up for myself.

I saw a different side of work when I was hired by international organisations that have proper human resources procedures and policies. Finally, it felt like you were seen and treated like a human being with separate needs and wants.

One of my objectives now is to ensure that young working people, or those who are just entering into the workforce to not be exploited the way that I was.

And that is why I am happy that SERATA is embarking on a project to liberalise the relevant employment laws in Sabah, and to raise awareness about employment rights especially when it comes to matters such as violence and harassment in the workplace.

Maybe when employees feel safe at work, they will be encouraged to be honest about themselves and their lives.

I just want to see a better and safe working environment for all in my city, where working people are treated with the respect they deserve.

Surely that isn’t too much to ask for.

~ Sabrina Aripen is the President and Founder of Society for Equality, Respect And Trust for All Sabah (SERATA). Having worked on gender equality issues for 10 years, her special interests are in working towards better women representation in the workplace and political sphere as well as the engagement of men and boys in the topic of gender equality. She is currently pursuing a PhD at  Universiti Malaya, focusing on the Life History of Fathers in Dual Income Families in Sabah, Malaysia.

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