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       Hazards, number 140, 2017
It’s not OK: Sexual harassment at work is more blue collar than red carpet
You think sexual harassment and assaults are at their worst in the movie industry? Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says try life as a cleaner, hotel housekeeper or waitress – or anyone in low paid ‘women’s work’ facing routine abuse with few rights and little chance of redress.


The headline-grabbing sexual harassment cases in politics, the media and entertainment are just the start of it.

Sexual harassment is an everyday fact of working life for many women, too ordinary to interest the media and too scared or concerned for their jobs to cry for help.
Still just a bit of banter?1 a study published in August 2016 by the TUC in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project, found more than half (52 per cent) of women - and nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) of women aged 18-24 years old - reported experiencing sexual harassment at work.

The TUC study found nearly one in three women (32 per cent) has been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work and more than one in four (28 per cent) has been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work.  Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) had experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work – and around one in eight (12 per cent) had experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

The survey also discovered that around four out of five women (79 per cent) who said they experienced sexual harassment at work did not tell their employer about what was happening.

The power and the story

It was the ever-lengthening litany of serious sexual assault allegations levelled at movie mogul Harvey Weinstein by top film stars that drew broader attention to the problem in the US.

When the victim is less celebrated – for example, the migrant hotel maid in New York whose story of a brutal sexual assault in 2011 led to the resignation and arrest of the then head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) Dominique Strauss-Kahn – the story has a different trajectory.

The credibility of Nafissatou Diallo’s account was questioned, as was her immigration status and morals, even though Strauss-Kahn subsequently resigned from his IMF post and made a confidential settlement.  

So it is unsurprising, as the TUC study showed, that most cases go unreported. Power relations – the perpetrator will frequently be a customer, client or workplace supervisor or manager – and the reality that many assaults are perpetrated behind closed doors without witnesses, means workers frequently lack the confidence, support or the corroborating evidence to speak out.

UNION PROTECTION  Unions have a crucial role in ensuring that all workers are able to do their jobs free from harassment, says the TUC. It’s guide for union reps notes: “All stewards should receive training on how to support and represent members in cases of sexual harassment.” more

But the problem, while largely out-of-sight, is real and it is widespread. A December 2017 ComRes Sexual Behaviour Survey for BBC News found two in five women in the UK reported experiencing unwanted sexual behaviour at work but only a quarter reported it. The ComRes survey of over 6,000 workers found among men, one in five (18 per cent) said they had been harassed at work.

Of those in flexible work - including zero hours contracts, self-employed, freelancer and gig economy workers – 43 per cent had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, compared to 29 per cent of those with permanent jobs. The less power you have to say no at work, the greater the likelihood you will face abuse.

A 2015 study in the journal Gender, Work & Organization,2 based on interviews with female workers at five-star hotels in Australia, found almost all experiencing some kind of inappropriate sexual advance from a guest and revealed “the pervasiveness of sexual harassment experienced by women hotel room attendants.” The paper noted: “The low status of hospitality workers renders them particularly vulnerable, with the power held by the instigator being a critical component of sexual harassment.”

GLOBAL REACTION  Trade union confederation ITUC has reiterated its call for a strong International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention to tackle gender-based violence at work. The ILO Conference in June 2018 will discuss the development of international labour standards on violence against women and men at work. more

The glass floor,3 a 2014 report from the US Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, noted 80 per cent of waitresses experienced sexual harassment. If earning a living wage is dependent on tips, speaking up is rarely an affordable option. Women in blue collar jobs are also routinely affected. A report the same year from the US National Women’s Law Center4 revealed 88 per cent of female construction workers had also been sexually harassed.

A September 2017 Danish study published in BMC Public Health5 found 1 per cent of more than 7,600 employees working for over 1,000 different organisations had been sexually harassed by a supervisor, colleague or a subordinate, while 2.4 per cent suffered the same treatment from someone else they dealt with at work. Women were much more likely to face this treatment than men, with 169 out of 4,116 – compared to 11 out of 3,487 men – reporting sexual harassment by customers.

The International Labour Organisation’s 2016 report, Addressing occupational violence: An overview of conceptual and policy considerations viewed through a gender lens,6 noted: “Sexual harassment is under-reported, and may overlap with other forms of violence or be subsumed into the broader concept of psychological harassment, particularly if targets are stigmatized when complaining of sexual or gender based harassment.”

Harassment at work is not just unwanted attention, it is unwanted threats and violence. ‘Sexual harassment’ is included explicitly on the TUC’s workplace violence reporting form.

HANDS OFF PANTS ON  Chicago hotel workers have celebrated a new ordinance they say will protect them from harassment, signed in the city in October 2017. Their union, Unite Here Local 1, said the ‘Hands Off Pants On’ ordinance will from 1 July 2018 require all hotels in Chicago to equip employees with panic buttons if they work alone in guest rooms or bathrooms. The hotels must also develop sexual harassment policies and are banned from retaliating against whistleblowers. Unions in Seattle and New York have negotiated contract clauses that require hotels to provide lone workers with panic buttons. www.handsoffpantson.org


Harassment harms

The consequence of sexual harassment is that workers suffer physical or mental harm. Frequently, they suffer both.

A 2015 paper published in the Journal of Community Health7 examined the relationship between workplace harassment and psychological and physical health in US workplaces.  About 8 per cent of the 17,524 respondents reported being harassed at work in the past 12 months. Harassment was associated with psychosocial distress, pain disorders, work loss, bed days, and worsening health.

While both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment at work, a 2017 article published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology8 reported that women tend to report more adverse effects than men. It said these may include anxiety, depression, eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, post-traumatic stress and a lower level of overall happiness.

The 2017 Danish study5 measured the impact of sexual harassment on mental health using the Major Depression Inventory (MDI), a questionnaire. Co-author Dr Ida Madsen, of the National Research Centre for the Working Environment in Denmark, said: “In this study we found that sexual harassment from clients or customers, which is more prevalent than harassment from other employees, is associated with an increased level of depressive symptoms.”

She added: “This is important as some workplaces, for example in person-related work such as care work or social work, may have an attitude that dealing with sexual harassment by clients or customers is ‘part of the job’.” She stressed that sexual harassment by clients or customers “has adverse consequences and should not be normalised or ignored.”

A second Danish study, published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health9 in 2016, found the chances of experiencing 30 or more consecutive sick days were significantly increased by unwanted sexual attention.

The effects can be long lasting. A 2014 review of dozens of papers examined the contribution of workplace injustice to occupational health disparities. The authors, writing in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine,10 noted: “Several cross-sectional studies have found evidence of symptoms and diagnosis of PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] among workers exposed to workplace bullying and sexual harassment.”

Challenging harassment

In the US, it was Harvey Weinstein’s grievous misdeeds that brought the issue of sexual harassment at work out of the shadows.  In the UK, it was the behaviour of politicians, with a series of scandals linking MPs to abusive behaviour directed at researchers, secretaries and party activists.

The sexual harassment revelations, which led to the November 2017 resignation of defence secretary Michael Fallon, prompted a confidential Unite survey of members employed by MPs and Lords, published in November 2017, revealed a ‘toxic’ working environment, with many staff suffering stress and bullying. Unite noted the lack of official union recognition for MPs’ staff meant that union reps had “to negotiate unofficial time off to attend meetings of an anti-harassment working group set up in the wake of recent scandals.”

Weinstein did provide the opportunity for UK entertainment and media unions to give new impetus to their on-going anti-harassment campaigns. Performers’ union Equity launched an investigation into practical ways to combat sexual harassment and the fear of disclosure in the theatre, film, TV, audio and new media industries, and challenged the industry’s ‘casting couch’ culture.

Equity is promoting its recently launched Manifesto for Casting, “to inform the entertainment industry of the standards it demands of all those engaged in the casting and employment process. “The union has also created a Casting Questions leaflet to empower members to challenge inappropriate and illegal questions at castings,” it said.

In the case of New York hotel worker Nafissatou Diallo, it is probable the complaint only came to light because New York City hotel workers are the most unionised in the world,11 with a membership rate of 75 per cent, giving otherwise rare job protection and representation.

When it comes to sexual harassment, workers depend on unions to support and defend them. And unions need to make sure this representation is matched by workplace prevention.

Sexual harassment at work is about violence and power. It takes union power to stop it.

Selected references

1. Still just a bit of banter?, TUC, August 2016.
2. Sandra Kensbock, Janis Bailey, Gayle Jennings and Anoop Patiar. Sexual harassment of women working as room attendants within 5-star hotels, Gender, Work and Organization, volume 22, issue 1, pages 36–50, January 2015.
3. The glass floor, Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, USA, 2014.
4. Women in Construction: Still Breaking Ground, National Women’s Law Center, USA, 2014.
5. Maria K Friborg and others. Workplace sexual harassment and depressive symptoms: a cross-sectional multilevel analysis comparing harassment from clients or customers to harassment from other employees amongst 7603 Danish employees from 1041 organizations, BMC Public Health, volume 17:675, published online 25 September 2017.
6. Addressing occupational violence: An overview of conceptual and policy considerations viewed through a gender lens, ILO, November 2016.
7. Jagdish Khubchandani and James H Price. Workplace harassment and morbidity among US adults: Results from the National Health Interview Survey, Journal of Community Health, volume 40, number 3, pages 555-563, 2015.
8. James Campbell Quick and M Ann McFadyen. Sexual harassment: Have we made any progress?, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, volume 22, number 3, pages 286-298, 2017. Related news release.
9. Kirsten Nabe-Nielsen and others. The role of poor sleep in the relation between workplace bullying/unwanted sexual attention and long-term sickness absence, International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health, volume 89, number 6, pages 967-979, 2016.
10. Cassandra A Okechukwu and others. Discrimination, harassment, abuse and bullying in the workplace: Contribution of workplace injustice to occupational health disparities, American Journal of Industrial Medicine, volume 57, number 5, pages 573-586, 2014.
11. In These Times 27 May 2011 article on the Dominique Strauss Kahn case. Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
12. TUC guide to your rights on sexual harassment, union reps’ guide to addressing sexual harassment, Everyday Sexism Project and ‘shouting back’ platform.
13. ITUC news release, action toolkit and portal on gender-based violence.
14. ETUC news release and Safe at Home, Safe at Work project.
15. SODEXO-IUF Joint Commitment on preventing sexual harassment: Annex to the SODEXO-IUF international framework agreement of 12 December 2011, June 2017.
16. IUF-IndustriALL-Unilever Joint Commitment to preventing sexual harassment, January 2016.




Union protection from sexual harassment

Unions have a crucial role in ensuring that all workers are able to do their jobs free from harassment, says the TUC. Its union reps’ guide to addressing sexual harassment12 notes: “All stewards should receive training on how to support and represent members in cases of sexual harassment. This should include training on discrimination law in relation to sexual harassment, how to be sympathetic and supportive, and how to ensure that victims keep a record of any incidents, including details of witnesses.”

The TUC guide urges union representatives “to be clear on how to deal with cases of sexual harassment where both the perpetrator and the victim are union members. Unions should have clear policies about how to ensure that the accuser is properly represented.

The guide adds: "Given that there is often a power dynamic at play in sexual harassment cases (the harasser has some power over the victim, whether it is greater age, or seniority, or authority), it is crucial that unions are sensitive to the fact that the accused may be better placed to seek greater support from the unions. For instance, the accused may seek representation from a regional official rather while the accuser may rely on her shop steward who may have less experience in such cases. Unions should be aware of this dynamic and should ensure proper representation for victims of harassment.

“One of the most important things a union representative can do is ensure that their employer has policies for preventing and dealing with sexual harassment.”

The Equality Act 2010 defines sexual harassment as unwanted conduct of a sexual nature which has the purpose or effect of violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them.

A claim by a perpetrator that a comment or action was meant in jest or as a compliment is not a defence in a sexual harassment case. Nor does the harassment have to be directed at the person complaining about it. Studies have shown even witnessing sexual harassment can be bad for your health.

•   Tackling sexual harassment in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, TUC, July 2016.
•   Protection from sexual harassment, TUC, November 2017.
•   TUC gender webpages.
•   NEU NUT section sexism in schools campaign including; tackling sexual harassment at work collectively guidance, sexual harassment advice, and Request to stop sexual harassment.



Unions call for strong global rules on violence at work

Trade unions have reiterated their call for a strong International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention to tackle gender-based violence at work. In June 2018, the ILO Conference will discuss the development of international labour standards on violence against women and men at work.

According to the global union confederation ITUC,13 more than one third of women around the world experience violence at work, at home or in the community. The global union, which has produced an action toolkit, argues action in the workplace is crucial to tackling the issue across the board.  

Sharan Burrow, ITUC general secretary, said: “Unions are leading the way in eradicating violence against women at work, and the support of a strong international legal instrument is essential.” She added: “Women in every occupational sector are exposed to violence and harassment, on an epic scale, and where they are deprived of the protection of a union, the likelihood that they will experience rape, physical assault, intimidation and harassment is far greater.”

She said it was “scandalous that sexual assault, sexual harassment and other forms of violence are not only tolerated at work, but in some cases used as a means to subjugate women in the interests of the corporate bottom line.”

Unions have highlighted the positive impact of negotiating protective standards. “Trade unions and employers play a major role in making work safe for women, and helping to eliminate harassment and violence against women,” said Luca Visentini, secretary general of the European Trade Union Confederation14 (ETUC). “Collective agreements have shown to be a most effective means to combat this scourge.”

A draft Canadian law to address harassment and violence at work was published in November 2017, after a lengthy campaign by unions. The Canadian government said the ‘three pillars’ of the proposed legislation, which would cover federally-regulated staff, are prevention, responding to incidents and providing support to those affected.

In 2017, the global food union federation IUF signed an international agreement with catering and services multinational Sodexo on measures to prevent sexual harassment at the workplace. The IUF-Sodexo Joint Commitment,15 which IUF says is based on a ‘shared recognition’ that sexual harassment is a human rights violation and that women working in the services are exposed to high levels of risk, sets out a policy and procedures for ensuring zero tolerance.

In 2016, global unions IndustriALL and IUF struck an agreement with soups-to-soaps multinational Unilever16 to help prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and make it easier for employees to report it.


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It’s not OK

You think sexual harassment and assaults are at their worst in the movie industry? Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says try life a cleaner, hotel housekeeper or waitress – or anyone in low paid ‘women’s work’ facing routine abuse with few rights and little chance of redress.

The power and the story
Harassment harms
Challenging harassment
Selected references

Hazards webpage

Related stories
Union protection from sexual harassment
Unions call for strong global rules on violence at work