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When the nightmares of domestic and sexual abuse come to work

Sexual abuse is not often thought of as a workplace issue. LOUISE RAW spotlights some of the harrowing ordeals women face – and how the Bakers Union is teaming up with women’s rights activists to raise awareness of the problem

“OF THOSE who had experienced domestic violence, over 40 per cent said it had affected their ability to work” (TUC Survey).

Talented, friendly and good with customers, Rachel Williams was everything an employer could ask for, yet the salon owner in Newport, South Wales, where she worked as a junior hairstylist until 2002 found that employing her “came with problems.”  

This was something of an understatement. Rachel was in a relationship with a controlling and dangerous man and, as her colleagues would discover, domestic abusers rarely confine control over victims’ lives to the domestic sphere. 

Rachel’s husband, Darren Williams, had been a loving boyfriend in their early dating days. Although physically imposing — 6 foot 7 and a bodybuilder — emotionally, he had shown Rachel a vulnerable side: the young couple had talked about the suicide of his brother and the violent home life he’d had to endure as a child. 

As Rachel would discover, this “softening up” is a typical part of the pattern of domestic abuse. 

When we ask why victims don’t leave sooner, we overlook the fact that abusers don’t merely use physical violence — some will never even use it. 

Over months or even years of skilled psychological manipulation, they will “groom” and condition victims to accept their treatment. 

For Rachel, the real violence didn’t begin until she was “in too deep — pregnant by Williams. 

“Over one in 10 … reported that the violence continued in the workplace. For nearly half of those … the abuse took the form of their partner turning up at their workplace or stalking them outside their workplace” (TUC Survey).

Rachel was “allowed” to work outside the home — not all victims are — but the limits imposed on this employment by Williams were so bizarre and draconian, they affected dozens of her co-workers and even customers. 

First, her employer recalled, Williams banned Rachel from working with male colleagues and cutting the hair of any man — or even lesbian women. 

When they employed a young man, the entire salon had to enact the charade that he was gay.   

Rachel’s boss recalled: “Darren’s demeanour was intimidating and we were all afraid of him ‘kicking off.’ He would make surprise visits to the salon and check our appointment book to try to catch her [cutting men’s hair]. 

“I remember one particular day when Rachel was the only stylist available to cut a gent’s hair and I had to order all my trainees to circle around her and the client to block any view from the street while she cut his hair. The fear of her getting caught was tangible and the whole salon was on pins.”

Rachel’s own hair was also subject to William’s rules: “Rachel was only allowed [to have] her hair … in his preferred, style and was not under any terms allowed it coloured. Only one time we broke the tinting rule — the following day Rachel came into work and begged for the colour to be removed. Rachel … had been ordered by Darren to reverse her hair back to its natural colour.”

Years later, Rachel, working by that time in a different salon, had found the courage to leave Williams and file for divorce. 

The final straw for her was a horrific incident: Williams strangled her and then slashed his own wrists, in front of their teenage son, Jack.

Again, when we assume all victims have to do is leave, it’s important to remember that, while this is essential, it’s also dangerous, and needs to be done with precautions and, ideally, professional advice and support — some abusers will do whatever it takes to try to reinstate control. 

Rachel takes up the story: “On August 19 2011 my estranged husband walked into my place of work.”

Rachel knew Williams was a “weapons nut” — he’d developed an obsession with collecting weapons, which he smuggled illegally into the country. 

“Whenever we talked about places we could visit for holidays or city breaks, Darren would always want to find out if you could buy weapons out there. Every holiday was an excuse to buy something — flick knives, pepper spray, anything he couldn’t get his hands on over here. I let him get on with it. If he was obsessing over his hobbies at least he was leaving me alone.”

In the salon that day, he pulled out a sawn-off shotgun. Hitting Rachel in the face with it, he knocked her to the ground; and as she pulled up her legs in a desperate attempt to protect herself, pointed the gun at her left knee at point-blank range. 

He fired with both barrels, with such force that the shots also peppered female customers with pellets.

Images of Rachel’s leg during the battle by surgeons to repair her shattered kneecap are hard to look at — so severe is the damage, it’s difficult to identify what is shown as a human limb. 

Williams shouted: “I love you” and ran from the salon, leaving his wife in agony and close to death. 

Within hours, after a police manhunt, Williams was found hanging from a tree at nearby woodland.   

Rachel recalls: “I spent six weeks in hospital where surgeons battled to save my leg. I was black and blue. I sported black eyes for those six weeks and had Darren's boot mark embedded in my arm and his finger marks in my back as bruises.

“I was finally discharged from hospital on Friday September 23. My beautiful son Jack committed suicide on Monday September 26.” 

Her beloved son died in the same woods as his father. Children are almost inevitably victims of domestic violence, whether directly or indirectly: Jack had grown up witnessing assaults, and had to deal with the knowledge that the father he loved had almost killed his mother. 

Subsequent reports found both Jack and Rachel had been severely failed by local support services. 

Rachel says: “Jack is the tragedy in my case, I should not have buried my son because I left my abuser.”

Rachel now works with the Freedom Programme, a charity empowering women to survive and thrive after domestic abuse and to rebuild their self-esteem. Looking at photos of her with Williams, it’s hard to recognise the woman I first met just a few years later. 

Her characteristic smile is the same, but doesn’t reach her eyes: she looks gaunt and haunted, her hair, now luxuriantly long, kept in the short pixie cut her husband stipulated. Williams has her in a possessive bear-hug in most images.  

Although horrifically extreme, Rachel’s case is not unusual in featuring “domestic” violence played out outside the home. 

Some have fatal consequences: in 2005 Clare Bernal, 22, was murdered at work by her ex-boyfriend and co-worker; in 2014, Hollie Gazzard, 20, was murdered by her abusive partner at work in a hairdresser’s salon. Gazzard had already moved twice to escape his violence. 

Too often, abuse affects every sphere of a victim’s life, further affecting those around her, including colleagues. 

To this end, the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union (BFAWU), the largest independent union in the British food sector, will this month launch a campaign in tandem with the organisation Women Against Rape, to tackle the myriad forms of violence and abuse faced by female members. 

Ian Hodson, national president of the BFAWU, told me: “We in the Bakers Union believe domestic violence and abuse are very much a workplace issue and that we must deal with it, as must employers. We need to fight together for social justice. Unions can be a voice for victims, as well as helping them to speak up. 

“We will campaign on their behalf to change the working environment, campaign to change the laws needed to prevent domestic abuse and violence and protect victims.”

The union’s Northern Ireland sector has already been negotiating with employers on this for some time, after finding the nature of members’ work in the region meant domestic violence had a disproportionate impact on them: “Many of our members in this region are factory-environment-based. 

“Within these workplaces we see many families, couples and spouses working together, which means that, where there are incidences of domestic abuse and violence, the victim may feel trapped due to living and working together with the perpetrator. 

“This can mean the reporting of such incidents is more difficult and the victim has a sense of constantly being watched.”

The union stepped in when it found employers’ responses were lacking: “Employers should be working to help and assist employees that face domestic abuse and violence, but more often view this as a ‘personal’ issue and not ‘work-related.’ 

“However there can be a massive impact to the working environment including a number of lost working days per year, lowered productivity, decreased morale, to name a few.”
 
A Home Office report in 2009 confirms this. It found that 20 per cent of domestic abuse victims had to take a month or more off work because of it. 

The TUC has found 56 per cent of abused women arrive late for work at least five times a month and 53 per cent miss at least three days of work a month. 

The Congress confirms that unions can play an important role: “For those suffering abuse at home, the workplace can be a place of refuge and safety and a friendly union rep often is the first port of call when seeking help. Reps can support individual members in dealing with management and seeking time off work. 

Paid time is crucially important in helping victims to safely and successfully get away: “Finding a new home, getting a place at a refuge, securing school places for kids, seeking legal advice, opening a new bank account and seeking medical help and counselling all take time. 

“Good workplace policies on domestic violence often offer advances on pay to help survivors of domestic violence get through a period when they may have no access to cash or their own money is being withheld by an abusive partner.”

Unions in Australia have accordingly negotiated up to 20 days’ paid leave for employees in this situation. 

Pat Craven, architect of the Freedom Programme, agrees there is much still to do in raising awareness. 

She has found that not just employers, but even women in abusive relationships (according to recent Crown Prosecution Service statistics, 93 per cent of defendants in recent domestic violence court cases were male and 84 per cent of victims female) may not know what is going on, such is the level of control exercised by abusers: “Most women I have met who came to the programme told us they themselves had no idea they were in an abusive relationship when it was going on. 

“They couldn’t relate to campaigns showing images of cowering women covered in bruises, as that’s often not what this abuse looks like. And if we do report violence to our managers or anyone in ‘authority’ we may find that they, too, may not understand what we are talking about.” 

The Freedom Programme takes on the stereotypes of abuse, making sure coercive control (a specific crime in the UK only since 2015) is covered as well as violence: one of their leaflets depicts a female judge being controlled and bullied at home, asking: “Who’s laying down the law in your home?”

Craven urges employers to use the Freedom Programme’s resources, deliberately designed to be easy to use and cost-effective, to help them to understand and support victims: programme facilitators can also train employers and employees in the issues. 
 
Domestic violence is, of course, far from the only way in which misogyny affects women’s working lives. 

Lisa Longstaff of Women Against Rape reminds us that sexual violence can affect women in any industry and is especially common in some: fast-food workers can be particularly vulnerable to it, many being young and not yet aware of their employment rights: “Sexual abuse comes from customers or from colleagues. But it is nastier and more worrying when it is someone abusing their position of authority, like as a manager who assumes he is entitled to impose his will on staff without your consent.

“Abusers count on the victim being afraid to report it, scared that she may lose her job if she is not believed or even if she is.”
 
Anyone on low pay, zero-hours contracts, or with insecure immigration status, and who is not a union member, is particularly vulnerable, especially to managers or colleagues in senior positions. 

Government policy over the last few years has put women at even more risk, says Longstaff: “Those of us who have children to feed are terrified of losing our jobs and housing. Austerity cuts, especially to welfare benefits, which have targeted women, and the social housing crisis, have made women on low wages more vulnerable to sexual violence as we can no longer rely on benefits to survive.”

Longstaff recalls the case of a McDonald’s branch manager who sexually abused several of his young female staff. 

Even though the women did the right thing and reported him to his management, he was allowed to simply move to another branch and avoid consequences. 

Not to be deterred, the women banded together and alerted female colleagues in the new branch, who launched a collective complaint and finally got the man dismissed. But they shouldn’t have had to go to those lengths. 

For a company which can well afford to treat staff decently, McDonald’s in fact has an appalling record on tackling sexual harassment: the multinational is in fact currently trying to dodge all liability, mounting a legal challenge seeking to instead scapegoat local management — which could mean individual managers becoming personally hit with damages claims. 

This would give them a greater impetus to hush-up, rather than tackle, incidents and makes a travesty of any notion of corporate liability.
 
Workers are, understandably, not “lovin’ it” — in the United States in September 2018, hundreds of the company’s female workers launched a 10-day strike across several states demanding McDonald’s act to stop sexual harassment in its workplaces.  
   
The BFAWU has found employers in Britain equally eager to use the law to silence victims. In several cases where the union has won compensation for members, victims have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements. This means that, while they get validation and the financial means to rebuild their lives, the perpetrator’s identity is not known, leaving them free to reoffend. 

Women Against Rape believes holding companies publicly to account is crucial: “The more we can make these companies pay, the more we must find ways to publicise it so others know they are not alone. 

“This in turn puts pressure on the company to stop men sexually abusing their power.” 

Rachel, now in a happy relationship, has dedicated her life to raising awareness to the numerous abuses women suffer, so that her son’s death isn’t in vain. 

She urges us all, both in and outside of our workplaces, to realise the terrible mundanity and pervasiveness of sex-based abuse, and the role we can all play in being alert to it: “Abusers could be in a high-powered job; they’re in every walk of life, they don’t live on a different island somewhere. You just can’t ‘see’ them, because they’re hidden behind their persona: but they could be on your street — they could living next door, or at the next desk.”

Help and advice: Freephone 24-Hour National Domestic Violence Helpline (0808) 2000-247, 24 Hour Freedom Programme Helpline: (01942) 262-270; Men’s Advice Line for men experiencing domestic violence (0808) 801-0327. Further reading and resources: Rachel Williams, The Devil At Home (Ebury Press, 2018)
Freedom Programme introduction to work and resources: mstar.link/FreedomProgramme; TUC Survey on domestic violence: mstar.link/TUCSurvey.

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