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International Women’s Day 2022: FLEX publication highlights need for better sexual harassment protections for workers in low-paid and insecure work

March 7, 2022

To mark International Women’s Day 2022, FLEX publishes ‘Tackling sexual harassment in low-paid and insecure work’, a position paper highlighting the gap in enforcement of sexual harassment protections in the workplace and the steps that need to be taken to better protect workers, especially those in low-paid and insecure work.

Sexual harassment is widespread in the workplace, but there is currently no public body with the remit, powers, or resources to effectively tackle it and ensure employers are complying with their legal duties. It is thus left up to individuals to protect themselves and enforce their own rights through workplace complaints processes (if they exist) or through Employment Tribunals (which are hard to access). This is a particular issue for workers in low-paid and insecure work, often women or from migrant and ethnic minority backgrounds, who are already more vulnerable to harassment and abuse and additionally face greater barriers to reporting it. It means that many workers have effectively no protection against sexual harassment in the workplace.

This paper is based on primary research and case studies collected by FLEX in the cleaning, hospitality and app-based delivery sectors*, as well as engagement with academics, frontline migrant organisations and trade unions.


Sexual harassment is a widespread workplace issue that is not being adequately addressed in the UK. According to the TUC, one in two women having experienced sexual harassment at work, with women significantly more likely to experience it compared to men. Our own research found high levels of sexual harassment in low-paid and insecure sectors of the economy, with 42% of women and non-binary participants in cleaning, 44% in hospitality, and 57% in app-based deliveries reporting experiencing sexual harassment. In cleaning and hospitality, workers reported concerning levels of harassment that violates civil laws, such as sexualised comments (47%) and unwanted sexual advances (38%), as well as what would usually be considered criminal offences, such as groping and unwanted touching (28%), stalking (20%), and attempted sexual assault (8%). 20% of survey respondents in cleaning and hospitality additionally said they had been afraid of losing work or having their hours cut if they reported or complained about harassment or abuse at work.

There is a significant enforcement gap when it comes to tackling workplace sexual harassment in the UK. The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has primary responsibility for regulating employers’ actions to tackle sexual harassment, but it currently does not have the power to act to prevent or prosecute workplace harassment cases, nor can it issue fines. Since 2007/8, its budget has been cut by 76%. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has an explicit role in tackling violence at work but does not consider this to include sexual harassment, and has seen a 58% loss of funding between 2009/10 and 2019/20.

Factors enabling sexual harassment at work 

Sexual harassment at work is often linked to unequal power relationships which are heightened in low-paid and insecure work. For example, participants, especially those with no guaranteed hours or protection against unfair dismissal, feared losing their current job or future work opportunities if they reported or complained about sexual harassment. They also felt they could not afford to risk losing work by making a complaint, especially if they had dependents or no recourse to public funds, which made them more reliant on their jobs. Language barriers also prevented many workers from seeking help or reporting sexual harassment, with participants who spoke limited English fearing they would not be understood or believed, and perpetrators using this to their advantage. The threat of immigration enforcement prevented participants from speaking out as perpetrators specifically targeted workers with insecure immigration status in the knowledge they would be unlikely to complain for fear of being detained and/or deported.

[H]e started coming behind me and saying, “I’ll show you how to do it, you’re not doing it right”. He would come behind me and embrace me from behind and say, “I’m only showing you how to do it”. Always when there was nobody around. 

I once said, “I’m going to complain”, and he said, “I’m only showing you how to do it right.  If you complain I’ll explain that you are not cleaning well enough”. And then he’d say “Try, they won’t understand your English, but go ahead and try.”

Martha, Cleaner

In the app-based delivery sector, workers are often classed by platform companies as ‘independent contractors’ and therefore not covered by the Equality Act 2010 protections against sexual harassment. This further limits their options for preventing and tackling sexual harassment at work.

Barriers to reporting sexual harassment

People in low-paid and insecure work face additional barriers in reporting sexual harassment due to inadequate or non-existent workplace complaints channels. Overall, we found little evidence of employers taking effective steps to address situations of sexual harassment. Instead, workers’ concerns and experiences of harassment were often brushed off. Too often companies do not have formal processes to deal with sexual harassment, so when complaints are made, they do not get addressed properly.

I was speaking to a female rider who was physically assaulted for the third time since she’s been working, and it was another person working for the same platform, she said it was a car driver. She had the number plate; she knew what he looked like and stuff. And she couldn’t find anywhere to report it, she was really struggling how to report it through the platform. Which I think is just awful. We should have more space to report these things and have them taken seriously.

Katherine, App-Based Courier

The only other way for individuals to enforce their rights is through employment tribunals, but the legal processes are often long, complex, and expensive, and the potential damages awarded are notoriously low, meaning there is little incentive for workers to bring sexual harassment cases.

Steps needed to tackle sexual harassment at work

It is clear that for sexual harassment at work to be effectively tackled, it cannot be treated as an isolated issue. This is especially true in low-paid and insecure jobs in sectors with a workforce that disproportionately experiences poverty, discrimination, language barriers, and immigration restrictions, creating an environment that both enables harassment and prevents people from reporting it.

In order to effectively tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, steps therefore need to be taken to better enforce protections for workers as well as address the issues of low pay and insecurity at work. There also need to be also secure reporting mechanisms that enable all workers, including those without work permits and/or with insecure immigration status to report sexual harassment and exploitation without fear of immigration enforcement action against them. The paper includes more detailed steps on how these recommendations could be implemented.

This publication is particularly timely considering that the UK government has recently announced it will be ratifying 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. We hope that in light of this and to mark International Women’s Day 2022, Government and policymakers will take heed of the findings and recommendations outlined in our paper.

Read the full report here.

*This publication is based on engagement with a total of 376 people working in cleaning (36%), hospitality (44%) and app-based food and goods delivery (20%). All in all, 62% identified as women, 37% as men, and 1% as non-binary. The vast majority (90%) were migrants​

This project is supported by Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Oak Foundation.