This week we are marking 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence by shedding a light on the widespread issue of sexual harassment in the workplace, sharing the experiences of some of the women in low-paid and insecure work who have been involved in our research. Earlier this year, the UK Government ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention which will mean that the UK will have to ensure that labour inspectorates are empowered to deal with workplace violence and harassment. Our position paper ‘Tackling sexual harassment in low-paid and insecure work’ published earlier this year sets out further recommendations which we call on the Government to engage with in order to better protect workers from sexual harassment at work.
Today we are sharing the story of Linda, a hospitality worker. 44% of participants in our research into the hospitality sector reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.
TW: sexual harassment
Linda was working in a popular high street sandwich shop when the assistant manager started sexually harassing her.
Since the beginning I struggled with the language barrier, so it was a bit complicated, but I did notice the looks, the insinuations, straight away.
She tried to keep her distance from him, which he took offence at. He started being rude and disrespectful and would do things like deny Linda her lunch break or make her work alone in the kitchen despite this being against the company’s rules.
I felt that the fact that I didn’t show him any fear made him angrier.
The harassment continued for a year and a half and moved from unwanted sexual advances to other labour abuses, such as not being paid the full or correct wages.
There were always problems with my pay, it was always with me. They owed me money, or the payment was late.
Linda put up with the harassment because she felt she could not afford to risk losing her job. She was also reluctant to complain about the harassment due to experiencing a language barrier.
In a previous job [in another country] I also had a man harassing me. He would make vulgar comments, he invited me to go out. I resigned from that job. Here I couldn’t do it, because I couldn’t speak enough English to say: “You, horrible [expletive]”. I also needed the money, so I couldn’t say anything.
Eventually, catalysed by a work-related injury, Linda sought support from a migrant community organisation and submitted a complaint to the company.
It came to a point where I had to say, “I can’t do this”. I had never refused to complete a task before. I am a mother and out of need I adapt.
The company started an investigation. However, the focus was on the other workplace abuses Linda experienced, while the sexual harassment claim was not investigated.
The insinuating looks, the flirting, it’s not illegal, so all I could demonstrate was the rest. His harassment, the looks, the flirting, I couldn’t demonstrate that.
The company did not take her experience of harassment seriously.
They blamed the rhythm of the work: “Things are so busy at [the company] that it’s normal for line managers to be slightly rude, to raise their voices”. But he once even counted the times I was going to the toilet!
She has been left feeling as though there is no recourse for people experiencing sexual harassment at work.
I honestly think that fighting a case of sexual harassment is helpless in this country.