Even as most workers find themselves doing their nine to five at home amid the COVID-19 crisis, workplace harassment is a boiling issue in Malta. Whether in a big corporation, small business or even as a self-employed worker, co-workers and clients are often left exposed to sexual violence.
Out of nearly 1,000 respondents to Lovin Malta’s sexual harassment survey, over 200 people described being abused during office hours.
“I was sitting at my computer desk. My boss moved uncomfortably close behind me and said he said he wouldn’t harm me, he just wanted me to feel how hard he was. He said his wife wasn’t giving it to him anymore,” a 45-year-old woman said.
This is the eighth part of a multi-article series shedding light on victims’ stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the country – from rape to abuse on transport and clubs, threats and digital abuse.
Here are the stories of harassment people in Malta felt at work.
A number of people, mostly young women, described being harassed by co-workers but felt they couldn’t defend themselves.
“When I was just 17 I worked as a waitress. One of the dishwashers, who was in his late 20s or older, used to be uncomfortably nice to me, by, for example, carrying my heavy trays. I always thanked him and was polite to him, then he started invading my personal space and touching me, poking me on my waist or play with my hair,” a woman, now 18, recalled.
She would make up excuses not to go into the kitchen alone when he was working. One day, he asked for her contact details. When she declined, his behaviour changed.
“I couldn’t take it. He became extremely rude and used to slam the plates when I used to carry them inside or throw them carelessly to scare me.”
One woman was just 15 when she was assaulted by her married co-worker, who was more than double her age.
“He was around 40 years old, married with kids. It was my first job. He cornered me to kiss and lick my neck.”
An 18-year-old was even raped by a colleague after a staff party.
“I was raped by someone I trusted, he took advantage when I had a bit too much to drink at a work party! In his eyes, it was an opportunity for a score, and I thought he’s a friend of mine.”
Like the overwhelming majority of respondents, she didn’t file a police report, out of fear of retaliation at work or inaction by authorities.
“I was intimidated by a male senior at my place of work. He would discreetly touch me. I didn’t tell anyone.”
“If I did report, my coworker would probably get out of it by saying he is a family man and that he was just being ‘friendly’. Thankfully I do not encounter him anymore because I relocated to another department with time,” another woman in her 20s said.
“When I was in my late 20s, a man who was high up in the organisational hierarchy, but wasn’t even my boss, cornered me in my own workspace, alone, and told me in a round-about way that if I didn’t smile at him more and pour people their coffees when I set up the meeting room, that I would find it difficult to get a truly lousy promotion. I quit after that,” a 40year-old respondent said.
The first time it happened, she continued, she didn’t tell anyone.
“When it happened a second time, I reported it to my boss who wanted to brush the whole thing under the carpet.”
An 18-year-old said another staff member would joke about “getting migrants from Marsa” because her boyfriend was black.
“He didn’t like that I was taken. His response was that he’d like to go round up people from Marsa at a low wage because I liked black men. All the other people would laugh every time he suggested it.”
One Hungarian woman, 25, said she left her old corporate job in finance because of a group of colleagues.
“A bunch of friends were hired together. They felt way too comfortable in their positions and would comment out loud at all women working in the company who walked in front of our office, which happened to be separated by a glass wall. In the room there were also six of us women, who had to listen to these men detailing what they would do to us,” she said.
“One of them was known to hug women from behind in the kitchen or kiss them on the cheek. He was also regularly getting in everyone’s personal space when talking to them. He never got reported as he was hired by his friend, who was in a higher position.”
It’s evidently difficult to report a colleague to superiors or authorities when sexual abuse happens. When your boss is the perpetrator, it feels impossible.
“My ‘boss’ tried to convince me to hook up with him but I made it clear as water that there was no way this was happening. I eventually quit as the environment was getting too tense and toxic for me. He was just married at the time,” a woman in her 20s said.
“I later got to know that he and his brother did the same thing to the other waitresses until one of them reported them and eventually got her fired.”
For another 25-year-old, standing up for herself cost her job.
“When I was 19, my superior emotionally manipulated me for months. He then gave me a lift once and took me to an empty parking lot. I was lucky that he accepted a polite decline. A month later though, I was fired,” she said.
The saga triggered a depressive episode.
“I can’t explain the anxiety and depression I got into because I didn’t know how to handle the whole experience emotionally, and I felt like I couldn’t talk to anyone.”
While workplace harassment does majorly affect women, abuse doesn’t care about gender, with some men experiencing similar ordeals.
“I went through unwanted touching from my same-sex boss who never acknowledged he was gay. I did not want to make a big deal out of it. It was a few years ago and I’m still ashamed,” a 25-year-old man said.
Older people have also divulged their stories of assault from bosses.
“At work, I was bullied by a manager because I didn’t let him hug me. He ended up calling me names and making my workday unbearable,” a woman in her 30s said.
She informed her director, but no action was taken.
“A boss tried kissing me. A handful of times. I was too scared to do anything – I have a family and it was a good job,” a 55-year-old said.
Another woman in her 50’s recalled being tricked into touching her boss’ crotch.
“He asked me to get his keys out of his pocket as his shoulder was hurting him – needless to say, there were no keys – and the pocket had a massive hole in it.”
“I once woke up with severe neck pain. My boss (who I grew up with and considered as a family member) offered to apply some pain relief cream as I couldn’t reach. He ended up lowering his hands and trying to touch my breasts from behind,” another woman, now in her 40s, said.
“In shock and at a young age I was not aware of personal space and brushed it off as if it was my fault, cause I accepted his offer to apply the cream.”
Meanwhile, one respondent had her boundaries crossed via e-mail.
“We used to have a generic email address and I used to receive inappropriate messages often. I realised my boss was using it for pornography because he did not want such emails to be circulated on his personal email in case his wife would access it. How was I supposed to confront him?”
“I never talked about it with anyone it’s the first time I’ve succeeded to verbalise it,” she said.
“At a part-time job, my boss was drunk and pushed me up against a wall, rubbing himself against me. He did it whilst telling another guy I needed to relax and get laid,” another woman in her 30s said.
Beyond co-workers and bosses, some recalled being stalked, groped and sneered at by clients.
“I work in an office where I am the only female, my clients are mostly men. I’ve been offered cars, money and holidays to sleep with them,” a woman in her mid-30s said.
When she declines, she said she is called a whore and ungrateful.
“My boss, who is my father, tells me to shut up and take as he doesn’t want to lose his clients. I am called aggressive, rude and difficult as I refuse to keep my mouth shut. If by chance they get my number I end up receive dick pics in every shape, colour and size.”
“I once offered this guy in his late 50s a cup of coffee as he was feeling sick, and instead he suggested that if I wanted him to feel better I should sit on him. My whole office started laughing,” an 18-year-old said.
One woman in her 20s said she would get hit on every time certain regulars would come into her place of work.
“If I don’t hide, I have to prepare myself on countless remarks on my body, staring and having to face that scary grin for at least 15 minutes of my day. Those 15 minutes feel like a whole day.”
Another, in her 20s, was stalked by a stranger.
“I used to work as a sales assistant in Sliema, and we had glass windows. One time a man came through asking for change. I noticed his dirty looks and stares, however, time passed and I didn’t think of it.”
Later that shift, just after her colleague went for her break, he returned and stood s in the corner to look at her.
“I worked in a jewellery store and it was clear that he had no intention of buying anything, yet this didn’t change the fact that he stood there and didn’t lift his eyes off me. I tried my best to talk to other customers so that I wouldn’t end up on my own in the shop with him. A few moments later he went out of the shop, shortly afterwards I see him staring excessively at me from the window outside. Every the shop emptied, he’d come back in.”
Thankfully her colleague had returned from their break.
“She stood right next to me and stared back at him to the point where he actually left. However, he continues to stare from outside the window. An hour later I see him walking and looking at me just opposite the shop. I get scared thinking of what would have happened if I was left alone.”
Workplace harassment is a serious issue that exists in offices and establishments all over the islands.
It doesn’t only impact the person experiencing it, but everyone who might be exposed to a toxic work environment. From unwelcome comments to vexatious touching, it can seriously threaten worker’s health and safety, especially once staff return to physical offices.
It is a myth that perpetrators of sexual violence are strangers, but it does make it harder to report it when it does happen. Not only are victims forced to confront their colleagues, bosses or clients, but the repercussions can also be disruptive, and some would simply rather endure it than uproot their financial security.
When it comes to sexual harassment, 85% of cases fly under the radar of police. But it is indeed against the law, and Malta must work to nurture a culture where victims know their rights and speak out.
Beyond supporting victims of workplace harassment, employers must do their part to crack down on the issue.
Not every company has the privilege of a human resources department. Every business – from catering gigs to financial jobs – should make training against sexual harassment obligatory. Only then can we begin to put the issue to rest.
On a national level, time-bars on sexual violence cases need to be removed, because there shouldn’t be a time limit on victims coming to terms with their trauma to face up with their abusers.
Together, we can make the workplace a safer place for everyone.
If you have suffered sexual assault, whether it was recently or not, and would like free, professional emotional support or legal assistance, get in touch with Victim Support Malta on + 356 2122 8333 or send an email to [email protected].
These are just some of the hundreds of personal, anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment victims have experienced in Malta. This series aims to give a voice to victims and empower them to break their silence to kick-start action.
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