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#IWD 2018: time to end exploitation of women at work

March 8, 2018

A waitress in your local restaurant, a cleaner in your office, a care worker looking after a loved one – across the UK women are being exploited in the workplace. Every day, many women face gender related abuse and exploitation when they go to work. This International Women’s Day FLEX is calling for a gender specific response to the exploitation suffered by women workers through its Five Point Plan to Combat Labour Exploitation. Sofia’s* case highlights the way in which women’s choices are reduced when facing gender discrimination and abuse, leaving them at risk of exploitation.

Sofia is a cleaner in one of the main buildings in the City of London. Her manager tells her that if she wants more work, she will have to have sex with him. She refuses and yet is told several times, that if she wants to be promoted she must give sexual favours to her employer. Whilst Sofia’s colleague is promoted Sofia is harassed and threatened with the sack, and eventually her hours are cut. When she tries to complain she realises she only has the contact details of the two people who are harassing her. Sofia is left feeling hopeless and alone, like many other women working in the cleaning sector.

FLEX’s new guide, Women in the workplace: FLEX’s five-point plan to combat exploitation, calls on labour market enforcement agencies to do more to enforce women’s rights at work. Cases like Sofia’s show that the laws that are supposed to prevent abuse are not working for women workers. Enforcement in the UK is currently largely reliant on complaints made by workers themselves, leaving those most afraid and at risk of exploitation unprotected.

A recent survey by the BBC revealed that half of all women experience some form of sexual harassment at work. In sectors with a high number of women workers, like cleaning, care work, domestic work and work in the hospitality sector, other forms of abuse are also rife. 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. According to Kalayaan, an organisation supporting migrant domestic workers, underpayment in the domestic work sector is endemic. Many women, like Irene, also experience poor treatment including verbal and physical abuse.

Irene* works as a domestic worker in London. Her duties are cleaning the house, ironing, cooking, and taking care of her employer’s children. She works more than 15 hours per day to be able to finish her long list of tasks. She is verbally abused by her employer and physically abused by the employer’s children. Once Irene was severely beaten and ended up in hospital, but the police took no action because her abusers were children.

Like Sofia and Irene many women face barriers to raising complaints of abuse and exploitation, because they don’t know where to turn for help, because they are afraid of losing the jobs they rely on or because they are not taken seriously. FLEX’s five-point plan aims to help labour inspectorates tackle these problems by taking a more proactive and gender-sensitive approach to combatting exploitation of women at work. It calls for greater understanding of the specific types of gender-related abuse that women workers are facing, as well as the barriers that prevent women from being able to complain or access help. It sets out the five simple actions enforcement agencies can take to reach at-risk women workers, to tackle the abuses they face and prevent them from becoming trapped in exploitation.

By putting women workers’ voices and needs at the heart of the approach to labour market enforcement, the UK can ensure that women get the help they need, and are guaranteed safe and decent work for the future, free from abuse and exploitation.

Read the full guide here.

* Not her real name