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Awarded €2,000 in first case of verbal sexual abuse

Sexual harassment victim 'received psychiatric help'

A woman was awarded €2,000 in a landmark case in which a comment during a board meeting by a male colleague was deemed to constitute verbal sexual abuse.

Doris Bonello was asked to attend a meeting with the company directors at General Soft Drinks Company Ltd. When she walked in there was no chair for her and she asked where she would sit and the sales and marketing manager, Martin Agius, who was chairing the meeting, told her: "Sit between my legs".

Ms Bonello told the industrial tribunal hearing her case the words were uttered in the presence of 20 people. She insisted the statement was intended to humiliate her and hurt her dignity.

The comment was the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back because she had long been subjected to abusive behaviour and comments by her superior.

The industrial tribunal, chaired by lawyer Leslie Cuschieri, heard that Ms Bonello worked as a merchandiser since March 2002. In July 2007, she was promoted to market activator. The meeting when the offending comment was made was held on November 29 that same year. She insisted that what Mr Agius told her was meant solely to "humiliate, intimidate and offend" her and "attack her dignity".

The tribunal heard company doctor Pierre Mallia explain that on the day of the incident he examined Ms Bonello who had been taken ill at work and had gone home.

Prof. Mallia said he wrote to human resources manager Stephen Bonnici on Ms Bonello's state of health saying: "Evidently, this is not the first time, like many other workers she has gone along and closed an eye so as not to jeopardise her job. Today, she did the same but, after a while, she started to have a panic attack... " He asked Mr Bonnici to take appropriate action on the matter.

Under cross examination, Prof. Mallia said he had not received any reports from other employees and what he wrote in his report to Mr Bonnici was based on what Ms Bonello had told him.

Almost a month after the incident, he said, he had spoken to Ms Bonello who told him she had started receiving psychiatric help and was not in a position to return to work. Later on that month, she left the job.

Stephen Bonello told the tribunal his wife had been complaining that she was not happy at work because of Mr Agius, adding that the tension at work was also having an effect on their relationship and their marriage. He said that, after the incident, his wife would not sleep and started to lose weight.

The HR manager said that the day after the incident, after having sought the advice of the company lawyer, Mr Agius was ordered to formally apologise for his actions. He exhibited a copy of the company's circular of its sexual harassment policy but admitted that this was only distributed to management and had not been given to all employees.

General Soft Drinks Ltd general manager, Maria Micallef, testified that, despite having 260 employees, she had never received any complaints on sexual harassment at work over the past 10 years. She said that, on the day of the incident, she and Mr Bonnici had summoned Mr Agius and other employees on the matter and subsequently gave him a verbal warning.

In its considerations, the tribunal said it did not agree with the line of defence that the words used by Mr Agius were vulgar but not sexual in content.

The tribunal noted that, while it was true that Ms Bonello had not reported Mr Agius's conduct to his superiors, the company should have had the proper mechanism in place for employees to feel "safe" to report their superiors for bad conduct.

In its award, the tribunal ruled that the company had not taken the proper measures to protect its employees from victimisation, harassment and sexual harassment.

While ruling that the incident did not amount to discrimination or a case of unfair dismissal, the tribunal awarded €2,000 compensation to Ms Bonello for being the victim of sexual harassment at the workplace. The company has 40 days to pay the amount.

Lawyer Mark Portelli appeared for Ms Bonello.

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