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Equality and Discrimination

A Sexual Harassment Story (Ana’s Story)

Ana came to Ireland from Croatia in 2014.

She knew a small number of Croats living in Dublin and they had told her she would find work here quickly enough.

They were right and she started a job in a coffee shop in the southside of Dublin within 2 months of arriving in Dublin. She quickly settled in Dublin and shared a house with 7 other people-2 Croats, 3 Poles, and 2 Irish.

Her English was not fluent but improving and she spoke well enough to get by, get her job done, and avoid too much confusion with anyone she came into contact with in the course of her days.

She spent a few weeks just clearing tables, cleaning, checking in orders, cleaning toilets, running to the cash and carry but soon she was pressed into service serving customers.

She found it difficult at first and was afraid of making serious mistakes.

But she learned quickly and was popular with the regulars who recognised her pleasant, friendly personality and smile, and her willingness to learn.

When she came to see me for the first time she fidgeted and played with a ring she wore.

She told me about her background, her 3 brothers and family in Zagreb. She never went into great detail when speaking with me about her time in Zagreb but her face darkened noticeably and I could see she was not comfortable speaking about it.

She did tell me, though, that she was on her way to primary school in May, 1995 when rocket attacks on Zagreb killed her uncle and aunt.

When she was sexually assaulted in the workplace, however, she made an oblique reference to her childhood in Croatia.

She said, “I’ve been through a lot at home in Croatia, I’ve seen most than most people my age, but this thing in the workplace was just a humiliation; I have put up with a lot of stuff before I came to Ireland but this was too much to expect me to take”.

She said the worst part wasn’t the assault, however, it was not being believed when she complained. And the investigation that was carried out being a complete whitewash and waste of time.

She had worked in the coffee shop for 7 months or so and was getting good experience under her belt. Her problems started when the manager of the coffee shop decide to go travelling for a couple of years with her boyfriend and the two of them went to Canada for a year.

The new manager, Seamus, was friendly at first; maybe too friendly. Always grinning at her like a shark.

Soon,however, Ana began to feel uncomfortable with Seamus’s attention. He was just weird and creepy.

At first he just made a small number of jokes with sexual innuendo.

Most people would probably consider them to be just part and parcel of the workplace, banter if you like.

But the “jokes” and innuendo got worse to the point where the situation was wearing Ana down.

She felt like quitting her job rather than face these dumb, offensive remarks every day-remarks about her appearance, her private life, her boyfriend, and so on.

Ana wasn’t in the job too long, however, and was still on probation so she felt the best thing to do might be to keep her head down, not rock the boat, and hope that Seamus would lay off or get fed up and just leave her alone.

She spoke to some of the other girls about it and they told her they had to put up with the same crap. They told her they were afraid to complain because they were not Irish and he was, and they were afraid they would not be believed and, anyway, who were they to complain to?

They weren’t sure of the whole situation, the legal situation, who was to help them; it was completely new to them but they were sure that the new manager would probably have more sway and influence with the owner than they had and would be more likely to be believed.

Besides it would be easier to replace one of the support or waitressing or retail staff rather than the manager. So they felt in a vulnerable situation.

What’s more, if they complained and were not believed the atmosphere in the workplace would be even worse, and they would feel like fools.

So they just stayed quiet and hoped he would get fed up and lay off.

Ana took the same approach and did nothing about the ‘jokes’ which were getting worse and more graphic.

Unfortunately this decision, however, backfired for Ana because Seamus took encouragement from her silence and her failure to make clear that his comments were unacceptable. He was emboldened. It got worse, not better, as time went on.

It was about 11 months after starting in this workplace that the final incident happened.

She remembered it well, it was a Tuesday afternoon at 3.45 pm. She could not believe it at first.

At first she was outraged but was so surprised and shocked that she wasn’t even sure it had actually happened.

What happened was Seamus had walked behind her back into the kitchen and put his hand on her bottom and whispered “you have a fine arse, Ana”.

Ana was stunned. She did not know what to do and went to the toilets, shook with anger and wept silently.

Her mind cleared, though, and then she was sure of exactly what he had done.

The bastard had put his hand on her bottom, treated her like a piece of meat, and ignored her dignity as a person. No respect.

This had gone on too long.

She dried her tears, gathered her courage as best she could and went straight to Seamus. She told him that what he had done was completely unacceptable, that she felt humiliated and demanded an apology.

Seamus’s face reddens and his mouth tightens and a little tic develops on the left side of his mouth. He denies it completely, tells her she is nothing but a troublemaker, and nobody will believe such a stupid allegation.

Ana felt faint, confused, could not think straight.

She goes into the little store at the back of the shop that passes for a staff room, takes her bag out of her locker, puts on her coat and heads for the bus stop to go home.

Ana sits in her kitchen for 90 minutes nursing a cup of coffee.

She debates with herself about what to do: should she leave or make a formal complaint or just forget about it and tough it out or start looking for another job?

She pulls out the staff handbook from underneath her bed and discovers how she is to make a complaint.

Two days later she receives a message from the owner of the business who tells her she has appointed an external HR person to carry out an investigation.

An investigation was quickly carried out and Ana made a statement about what happened and what had happened previously. She told the investigator that it was common knowledge what Seamus was like-all he had to do was check with the other girls.

The investigator called in the other 2 girls and asked them if they ever had any difficulty with Seamus.

They told of the long running difficulties that they had experienced with him: inappropriate remarks, comments about their clothes, how they looked, their make up, told them jokes that always involved some sexual comment, and so forth.

Ana reads the letter again for the second time and she can’t believe it. She has received it by registered post and it tells her the outcome of her complaint is that the investigator from the HR company does not uphold her complaint.

The reasons given are a “conflict of evidence” and one person’s word against another’s and the absence of any witness to the alleged incident.

The letter is worded really nice and professional and it tells her the employer values her greatly and hopes she will be able to come back to work soon and are sure that her relationship with Seamus can be rebuilt “going forward”.

Ana reads it for the third time. She cannot believe it. She’s thinks she is going to be physically sick. Really throw up.

She’s not sure what to do, or what she can do.

But she knows one thing: she cannot go back into that workplace.

Ana sits in my office now. She plays with her ring, a big blue stone of a thing. She is teary and weepy and I get a small box of tissues.

She is determined about one thing: she will not let this go. She wants to take it further and tell her story. She hasn’t come from a difficult upbringing in Zagreb to Ireland to have some deviant treat her like a piece of fine meat.

We submitted her claim to the WRC without delay. It was an Employment Equality act 1998 claim that she had suffered discrimination in the workplace by reason of her gender and had been the victim of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment is defined in Section 14A Employment Equality Act 1998 as

references to sexual harassment are to any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,

being conduct which in either case has the purpose or effect of violating a person’s dignity and creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for the person.

Now, it is 8 months later and we have received the decision of the WRC adjudicator. The WRC have found that Ana’s complaint was “well founded” and she has been awarded €27,000 in compensation.

It is open to the employer to appeal this decision to the Labour Court.

But Ana doesn’t care; she has told her story to an independent adjudicator and has been believed. Not alone that but the wrong that was done to her in the workplace has been recognised by an award of compensation. It wasn’t just a trivial, inconsequential, technical wrong.

It was a serious attack on her self respect and dignity.

The money is not the important thing to Ana, but it will give her time to get on her feet again, get another job, maybe send some home to her family outside Zagreb.

(Please note “Ana” and “Seamus” are not the real names of the parties involved in this case and some facts have been changed slightly to prevent identification).