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Legal clinics offer services for sexual harassment in the workplace

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A new program is available in the Elgin, Oxford, Huron and Perth region to address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, increase awareness, educate people, and provide advice.

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Elspeth Graham, a lawyer at Elgin-Oxford Legal Clinic (EOLC), based in St. Thomas, and the Huron Perth Community Legal Clinic in Stratford, is leading the Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Project (SHIW Project).

SHIW Project, now in its third year, has been funded by The Department for Justice Canada for five years. It was introduced in 2019 at a few eastern Ontario clinics. Last year more clinics joined including EOLC and Huron Perth, which joined in September 2020. The two clinics also work collaboratively with Neighbourhood Legal Services in London and Middlesex.

“We offer services to both individuals and organizations,” said Graham.

For individuals, generally that is someone who has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Or someone who may be unsure if they have and they can question Graham, who can be the first line of advice and legal information. All information provided regarding a legal problem is confidential, she noted.

“I would give them legal information and advice about their situation, what they’ve experienced, whether or not they might have a case, and what their options would be, what next steps they could take, if any, if they want to. So there’s no pressure, no obligation, it would just be ‘here’s some information… here’s some advice’ and some counselling and support.

“People may have questions. Maybe you’re not sure what’s happened, maybe you’re not sure if it crossed the line… I’m available to speak to them as well.”

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Unlike with other legal aid services, there is no financial eligibility requirement for an individual to receive advice or legal information through the SHIW Project.

“It’s open to everyone and it’s free,” said Graham.

For organizations, SHIW Project can provide training, workshops, and presentations regarding sexual harassment in the workplace.

Presentations can be introductory or general information about sexual harassment in the workplace, or more specific to an organization or industry. The SHIW Project can also assist those looking to develop a Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Policy for their organization or workplace.

“A lot of sexual harassment is actually conducted by customers and clients, so if you have a business and you’re looking at how do I protect my employees, doing some sort of training or workshop… that could be something people might be interested in.”

The availability of free, local sexual harassment services is timely in light of the persistence and prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace, said Graham.

“When you’re looking at these statistics, you see there’s a significant number of people being affected, but then you also see how few people actually report. So there’s a huge issue with respect to people reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, and until that gets better it’s hard to say just how prevalent it is. So there’s a challenge there, but with all the attention, and the movement that has been taking place more recently, it is changing. It does seem like people are becoming more empowered to report.”

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A range of conduct can be considered sexual harassment, Graham noted. It can include overt sexual behaviour, such as non-consensual sexual touching, and it can also include more subtle conduct, such as gender-based insults or jokes. Sexual harassment includes harassing comments or conduct based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.

And it can happen to anyone at anytime, she added. It can also be perpetrated by anyone, whether it’s a manager or supervisor, a colleague or peer, or a client or customer.

“It’s really important that we all learn about that so that we can recognize it when it happens.”

With many people working from home during the pandemic, Graham said sexual harassment in the workplace continues to be an issue.

“In one way, a lot of people are thinking probably that if we’re not in the office, we’re not in physical work spaces anymore, then you would think that the sexual harassment would decrease. But that is actually not the case. In the same way that we’ve adapted to work from home, our communications for work are adapting as well. So we’re seeing sexual harassment taking place in other ways. Maybe via social media, or company communications on Slack or emails or Zoom.”

Sexual harassment in the workplace is against the law, and employers are required to ensure that workplaces are safe, including being free from sexual harassment.

If you are an individual seeking legal advice or information, or an organization seeking a workshop or other services for your organization, contact Elspeth Graham at either the Elgin-Oxford Legal Clinic (519-633-2638 or toll free at 1-866-611-2311) or the Huron Perth Community Legal Clinic (519-271-4556 or toll free at 1-866-867-1027).

Graham can also be contacted by email at theshiwproject@gmail.com.

To learn more, visit the SHIW Project online at www.eolc.ca/shiw-project/ and on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

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