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International Women’s Day 2023: Tackling exploitation of women workers

March 8, 2023

Natasha Rosner

Communications Officer

Despite growing awareness of gender inequality and oppression in the last few years in the wake of the #MeToo movement, women continue to face abuse and violence in their daily lives, at home, on the streets and in their places of work. To mark International Women’s Day 2023, we want to draw attention to some of the specific risks, discrimination and harassment that women still face in the workplace and what needs to be done to address them.

Feminised sectors and labour exploitation

According to new research by the Living Wage Foundation, more than 2 million women workers in the UK are paid below the real living wage, with 60% of all jobs below the living wage being done by women. Women are disproportionately represented in a number of low-paid and high-risk sectors of the economy, such as cleaning (81%)[1], care (82% of all adult social care workers are women), hospitality (64%)[2] and domestic work (61%)[3]. The most common abuses affecting workers in these sectors include payments below minimum wage, wage theft, bogus self-employment, discrimination, violence and harassment, unfair deductions from pay, and health and safety breaches. 

For women workers, gender discrimination is particularly prevalent in relation to pregnancy and maternity leave, when they are more likely to suffer poor treatment, a reduction of pay or hours, and termination of employment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission estimates that as many as 54,000 women each year feel forced to leave their job due to pregnancy or maternity related discrimination. Women are more likely than men to experience sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace, with one in two women having experienced sexual harassment at work, with a greater impact on racialised and other minoritised women. This is often linked to unequal power relationships which are heightened in low-paid and insecure work, meaning that workers may fear losing their current job or future work opportunities if they report or complain about sexual harassment. Language barriers and the threat of immigration enforcement may also prevent people from reporting harassment.

FLEX’s recent research into the cleaning and hospitality sectors highlights some of the risks of exploitation and gender-related abuse and violence in these highly feminised sectors. 42% of women and non-binary participants in cleaning and 44% in hospitality reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. 20% of survey respondents 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.

‘In a previous job [in another country] I also had another 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 […]. I also needed the money, so I couldn’t say anything.’ 

Focus group, Sexual Harassment in Cleaning and Hospitality, 19 June 2020

In our research into the live-in care sector, women also reported experiences of sexual harassment:

‘..So I’d have to put him back to bed and, and then he started to get a little bit calling me darling. And, you know, touching me but I had nothing I couldn’t deal with. And I’d say “[name] we’re just colleagues”, I’d say, you know, “that’s not appropriate” and “get off me your dirty old bastard” – I wanted to say to him. I never did. But in my head, that’s what I was thinking.’

Sylvia, live-in carer, South Africa

What needs to be done

A year ago today, we published a joint position paper as part of the Working Group on Women Workers’ on tackling sexual harassment in low-paid and insecure work. On the same day, the UK Government ratified the ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, which means that the UK has committed to ensure that labour inspectorates are empowered to deal with workplace violence and harassment. In its statement, the Government committed to introducing ‘a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as explicit protections against workplace harassment by third parties, for example customers or clients.’ 

Although slow moving, these steps towards better protections for women workers are welcome. In order to further remove barriers to reporting gender-based abuse and discrimination, there need to be secure reporting mechanisms so that victims can seek help from the authorities without fear of immigration enforcement action. Steps must also be taken to address the underlying issues of low pay and insecurity in highly feminised sectors. A broader gender-aware approach is needed which recognises the broader impact of gender inequality on women’s experiences in the workplace. Our five-point plan, created in 2017 together with other organisations as part of the Working Group on Women Workers, sets out practical steps labour market enforcement agencies can take to build a more targeted, gender-aware response to abuse and exploitation of women in the workplace. First and foremost, the experiences and voices of women workers must be at the heart of any approach to tackling gendered labour exploitation and abuse and ensuring women have access to safe and decent work.

[1] Source: Office for National Statistics. 2018. Labour Force Survey Apr-June 2018

[2] ONS. 2021 Employment by Industry. Online.

[3] International Labour Organisation, 2013, Domestic workers across the world: Global and regional statistics and the extent of legal protection, p.21.