On International Women’s Day 2018 FLEX launched its new guide Women in the workplace: FLEX’s five-point plan to combat exploitation. The guide helps labour inspectorates to tackle exploitation of women at work, by setting out simple actions that they can take to understand, identify and prevent the types of discrimination, abuse and exploitation women face in the workplace.
Last week FLEX brought together leading experts to share ideas on how we can end exploitation of women workers in the UK. Key UK labour inspection authorities, the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, the Health and Safety Executive, HMRC and the Employment Agency Standards Inspectorate, were represented. They were joined by officials from the Home Office, the Office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner and the office of the Director of Labour Market Enforcement. A wide-ranging discussion took place about the abuses women are facing in the workplace and the gaps in the existing labour market enforcement framework to stop these abuses before they develop into labour exploitation.
The Latin American Women’s Rights Service (LAWRS) shared cases of sexual harassment and assault in the cleaning sector. When the women LAWRS supports have tried to complain about abuses they have faced disbelief and have been threatened or fired as a result of speaking out. Sexual harassment at work often goes hand in hand with other forms of abuse, which never get reported because survivors are afraid of repercussions if they speak out. When these abuses are ignored, they can open the door to exploitation and modern slavery.
UK labour inspectorates face a huge task on limited resources. Most rely on workers themselves to complain, as they lack the resources to inspect workplaces proactively. This means that, as a recent parliamentary report revealed, UK businesses can expect an inspection only once every 500 years. This is bad news for workers who are afraid or unable to come forward, or risk losing the jobs they rely on if they do. With modern slavery high on the agenda, now is the time for government to invest in enforcing women workers rights, to reach those most at risk of exploitation. If not, we will continue to fail women working in some of the most at-risk sectors across the UK.
For now, it is down to inspectorates, support services, NGOs and unions to work better together to challenge abuse in the workplace and help to bring exploiters to justice. To do this we need a co-ordinated, gender-aware approach that can respond to the needs of women workers and reach those that are most hidden. The conversation has been started; now is the time to put noble words into action.
Read FLEX’s guide Women in the workplace: FLEX’s five-point plan to combat exploitation here.