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Women fight back as new law ‘fails to prevent discrimation’

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Sex discrimination that would be illegal in the UK is commonplace on St Helena, according to the founder of a new group for women.

Catherine Turner says the island’s new employment law will still allow demeaning treatment, including ordering women to wear short skirts.

But lawyer Frank Wastell, the island’s Crown Counsel, said there was protection in place in St Helena’s constitution.

Next Monday, Catherine and some “fairly senior women” launch the Women in St Helena group (WISH) to make a stand on gender issues.

In her own words, she says that when new employment rules come into effect, it will still be legal for private sector employers to:

  • Advertise for male staff  (yes, it is happening)
  • Ask only women at interview – whether they will have children in future, and who will look after the children when they are ill?
  • Pay women less than men – (yes, it happens: one employer has stated publically that he pays his female staff less than the men because ‘they expect it’)
  • To insist that short skirts and high heals are worn by their sales assistants
  • To insist that you make the tea because it is “a woman’s job” even if some of the more junior people present are men.

Catherine adds: “There will still be no maternity pay or statutory maternity leave for private sector employees, although being sacked because you are pregnant may be considered constructive dismissal.

“The anecdotal reports we have had of sexual harassment at work are many and varied.

“But there is no employment protection and no [employer] has to have a disciplinary or grievance procedure, so there is no way of making a formal complaint.”

The Employment Rights Ordinance 2010 was due to come into force late last year or early in 2012. Catherine welcomed the fact that legislation had been passed but said it did not go far enough.

But Frank Wastell said:  “Catherine does not tell the full story. There will be in place a provision for unfair dismissal and in time we will be introducing more specific legislation.

“And we have clauses in the Constitution relating to discrimination, so there is more protection. There is a bigger picture here.”

Catherine says problem with discrimination go beyond the workplace: “Women are still subject to the most degrading jeers and comments from men in the street – albeit a small minority.”

She spoke out after former governor Andrew Gurr gave a talk in which he said women dominated top jobs on the island – though the women’s group was originally proposed last year.

He told the Friends of St Helena: “I looked round my advisers and nearly all of them were female, and it really says a great deal about the island and the ability of the ladies to get through the work.”

In a seperate conversation, he said: “I think it makes a nonsense of the Commonwealth people coming and talking about how we have to help girls. They are in charge.”

Catherine said: “Yes several of the heads of government directorates are women.

“But what are the odds on that continuing if all the men come back?  Most of the most talented men have seized the opportunity to go overseas: if this competition [for jobs] comes back I do not rate the women’s chances.

“The councilors who direct these ‘girls in charge’ are nearly all male (10 men, 2 women).”

Nick Thorpe, whose businesses include Thorpe’s shops, said 80% of his 70 staff were women. “We employ men as farm staff and warehouse delivery drivers and women for everything else.

“The pay is graded as fairly as possible. We offer three months’ half pay for maternity leave.

“I would not ask staff to wear short skirts, because a more sober look is better for business.”

One businessman told St Helena Online that sex discrimination probably existed, “but I do not think that it is as serious as in many places in the world, even western cultures.”

UK law says it is illegal to ask women about their parenting plans, or advertise specifically for a man or woman for a job – except in special circumstances.

Giving women demeaning tasks because of their gender, or requiring them to wear revealing clothing, would be grounds for British employees to claim sex discrimination or constructive dismissal (for being forced out of a job).

“This is just the position for women,” said Catherine. “If you are disabled, gay or anything other than Christian there is even less protection.

Catherine has been appointed as St Helena’s human rights co-ordinator, but made her remarks as a co-founder of Women In St Helena.

She said: “I have to say that if I were a Saint living in the UK and anything other than a heterosexual, able-bodied male, I would think twice before leaving my human rights at Brize Norton.”

A launch meeting for Women In St Helena will be held between 7pm and 9pm on Monday, 25 June 2012 at Ann’s Place in Jamestown. Anyone is welcome to attend – including men.

The inside story on St Helena, by former governor Andrew Gurr (see final section of story)

Employment Rights Ordinance 2010

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