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International Women’s Day 2020: Sexual Harassment and Gender-Based Violence – A Workplace Issue

March 4, 2020
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Eleonora Paesani

Research Officer

For International Women’s Day, which takes place on Sunday 8th March 2020, FLEX highlights the need for new approaches to tackle sexual harassment and Gender-Based Violence at work.

We (still) need to talk about sexual harassment and gender-based violence

In October 2017, the #MeToo movement brought to the surface myriad untold stories of sexual harassment and gender-based violence (GBV). Whilst Hollywood stars dominated the headlines, 700,000 Latina farmworkers in the US wrote a letter in support of the movement, describing their own experiences of violence working in isolated fields “out of sight and out of mind for most people in the country”. Workers from all sectors, from fast food to factories, felt empowered to protest the systemic problem of sexual harassment in the workplace.

For International Women’s Day 2020, FLEX wants to highlight how sexual harassment and GBV remain a key workplace issue, with significant effect on women workers, especially those in precarious work. Despite a considerable increase in awareness of the issue, more must be done to challenge the way we perceive it. In particular, sexual harassment in the workplace needs to be seen in the broader context of unequal power relations in the labour market. In this sense, it is not a ‘bad apple’ occurrence – something that can be solved just by punishing individual perpetrators – but is driven by factors including the increased use of outsourcing and precarious employment models in feminised sectors, discrimination, and the lack of effective mechanisms for enforcing workers’ rights.

The new ground-breaking ILO Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) and the accompanying recommendation 206 provide important tools to tackle GBV and sexual harassment in the workplace. Provisions include the responsibility of labour inspectorates to investigate and inspect cases of sexual harassment, as well as the need for them to receive appropriate training to be able to deal with GBV and harassment. The Convention also broadens who is entitled to protection to include informal workers, volunteers and interns (currently not covered by UK sexual harassment legislation, though this is under review), and what constitutes a ‘place of work’.

Sexual harassment in UK workplaces: a power imbalance

When looking at the UK, where sexual harassment is covered under the Equality Act 2010, it is clear that the current response is not effective. The latest data paints a picture of more than half of women having experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact in the workplace. While sexual harassment can be experienced by anyone, it disproportionately affects women, as shown in studies finding that women are more likely than men to experience sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace.

However, gender is not the only characteristic that contributes to a person’s experience of and risk of sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is more likely to occur where there are power imbalances: specific personal characteristics and employment models can create or contribute to power dynamics that enable this harm to take place. Personal characteristics that affect people’s likelihood to be victimised include age, race and disability, as well as situational and circumstantial vulnerabilities, like migrant status, language barriers, sector of work, employment type and economic destitution.

Understanding how these different factors can affect and increase risk is to view sexual harassment and GBV through an ‘intersectional’ lens. Through this, it is clear that black and minority ethnic, disabled, LGBQT+ and young workers are more likely to experience sexual harassment and serious abuses such as rape and assault at work. For example, when looking at the number of women having experienced some type of unwanted sexual contact, this jumps from 53% to 68% when it comes to LGBTQ+ women.

Particular employment models, such as zero-hours contracts, agency work and outsourcing, and characteristics of work, like night work or isolated workplaces, contribute to the risk of sexual harassment in the workplace. Women working in feminised sectors such as care, cleaning and hospitality, where these employment models and characteristics are prominent, are more likely to experience sexual harassment.

The impact of power imbalances based on personal characteristics is compounded by similar imbalances caused by employment characteristics. Young women, for example, are more likely to be on casual contracts, such as temporary, agency or zero-hours contracts and are likely to have had shorter tenure and be in more junior roles; all of which may be factors that increase the risk of sexual harassment.  Sexual harassment is about power, and those with least power are most likely to experience it.

Tackling sexual harassment at work: a vicious circle of oppression

Women in low-paid and precarious jobs are not only more likely to experience sexual harassment, but also less likely to report it, fearing retaliation, loss of employment and economic destitution. In addition, business practices such as outsourcing, and subcontracting make it more difficult for workers to identify who and where to report abuses. Our research with workers in outsourced and low-paid sectors like cleaning and hospitality (to be published later this year) has found that where workers have complained about sexual harassment, they have been moved to other worksites or experienced retaliation. One kitchen porter recounted how, after objecting to sexual advances from a supervisor, their shifts were changed without warning, making them miss work.

Labour inspectorates are a key channel for workers to raise problems, and yet when it comes to sexual harassment, they’re failing to play their part and consider sexual harassment as a workplace issue and therefore under their remit. The Women and Equality Commission found “passivity and indifference of regulators in the face of widespread workplace sexual harassment”. For instance, the Health and Safety Executive does not see tackling or investigating sexual harassment as part of its duties despite the impact of harassment on workers’ health and despite having an explicit remit to tackle work-related violence. As a result, workers are left to deal with sexual harassment on their own.

When addressing sexual harassment internally with their employer is ineffective, workers can make a claim to an employment tribunal within three months of the problem occurring. Bringing an Equality Act claim to an employment tribunal can be extremely challenging for people that cannot access free or affordable legal support, if they work during unsociable hours, have low income, are not familiar with the support available to them, or do not speak English. Even when people want to bring forward a claim, they may not manage to do it within the three months period.

What needs to change

The proposal by the Government Equalities Office to introduce a proactive duty to prevent harassment before any unlawful conduct has taken place is a positive improvement, but more must be done. While a proactive approach from employers is a good step to tackle the issue, it does not address the structural issues underlying violence and harassment at work. Without doing this, any attempts to prevent sexual harassment at work will fail to be truly effective.

Sexual harassment disproportionately impacts women and those with specific personal or employment characteristics, as explained above. But underlying this prevalence is a story about power. Once we recognise sexual harassment as a workplace issue driven by unequal power relations, the solutions to the problem suddenly look very different. Instead of relying on individuals to enforce their rights through employment tribunals or bring them up with employers, we need to see employment models that embed precarity and vulnerability challenged. This could mean, for example, reducing or limiting outsourcing, limiting tiers in supply chains, prohibiting zero hours contracts and so on. Paired with this, we must have adequate and proactive labour market enforcement that has been trained in gender-responsive approaches. Without these steps, the promise of #MeToo will ring hollow for millions of women workers in the UK.

You can read more about FLEX’s key recommendations for targeted, gender-aware labour market enforcement policy and practice here