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Unite Equality Conference Dignity at work should be a fundamental legal right

The government must take urgent action to tackle the culture of harassment, writes SIOBHAN ENDEAN

WOMEN union reps from across all industrial sectors and nations and regions will come together to form Unite’s national women’s conference this week in Blackpool.

Women will be debating the gender pay gap, maternity rights and pregnancy discrimination, international solidarity, pensions, automation and austerity.

Women continue to pay the price for the government’s austerity policies. We are picking up the pieces of a failure to provide social care and we are working longer hours in low-paid jobs and struggling to make ends meet.

The debacle over universal credit demonstrates that women are reaching crisis point. We don’t accept that you can put a sticking plaster onto universal credit and think women will accept benefit sanctions for not working even longer hours. 

Women are demanding a seat at the decision-making table. We are demanding our voices are heard when it comes to economic policy as well as social policy. It is telling that the government has failed to carry out an equality impact assessment of the Brexit negotiations.

We demand trade negotiations that result in fair and ethical trade and a respect for women workers globally.

We demand the end to modern day slavery of women and people trafficking and we demand trade agreements that allow us to support our manufacturing  industries and public services.

Our national women’s conference this week will hear from women across the public and private sectors who have similar experiences of the gender pay gap in their work places. 

We will look at the importance of collective bargaining in delivering fair and transparent pay systems and closing the pay gap.

Women routinely experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a problem throughout the economy, but most often occurs in sectors where there is the absence of any job security. It is no coincidence that harassment is greatest in jobs where women have little or no power. 

The appalling behaviour that occurred at last week’s Presidents Club charity dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in Central London is a prime example of where women were engaged by an agency that employed them to act as hostesses. 

The women were lied to and coerced into becoming sex objects for men to assault and abuse, the Presidents Club advertised them as such and the hotel facilitated the abuse by providing the venue. 

None of the above organisations has accepted responsibility for preventing harassment of  the women workers. 

The physical and verbal sexual harassment these women faced will be all too familiar to women working throughout the hospitality industry.

Until we have a positive framework of employment legislation and trade union rights to safeguard dignity at work, then the culture of bullying and harassment will continue.

Our daughters and sons are increasingly turning to the hospitality industry for their first jobs. Pay is lower than it should be, meaning workers are reliant on tips. 

No worker, no matter how vulnerable, should have to put up with harassment and bullying from co-workers or customers and employers must take steps to stamp it out.

Unite recently carried out a survey of women who work in the hospitality sector. The findings are profoundly disturbing. 

Ninety-three per cent of female respondents said they had experienced sexual harassment, while 86 per cent said they had experienced unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing. 

The harassment comes from colleagues, managers and customers. Over half of women feel pressured to tolerate harassment because of tips. Over half say harassment is not taken seriously by their employer and they are not confident that their employer would support them if they made a complaint.

The government needs to take urgent action to tackle the culture of harassment and bullying. The current situation is having a devastating impact on workers, many of whom are simply putting up with harassment in workplaces where there is no union organisation, leaving many to feel they have no power to do anything about it. 

Dignity at work should be a fundamental legal right and currently our employment legislation is failing workers.

The Equality Act 2010 had a provision for third party harassment, which was put in place following the failure of a race discrimination case taken by two waitresses who worked in a hotel and were racially harassed by customers following a disgraceful performance by Bernard Manning. 

Third-party harassment was designed to ensure employers were responsible for protecting their employees from harassment by customers. However, the Conservative government repealed this section of the legislation.

If the third-party harassment provisions were still in place, then the women subjected to being groped and harassed at the Dorchester last week would had a clear legal avenue to seek justice for their experiences.

Unite would like to see third party harassment reinstated, but we would like to see the government go further with a Dignity at Work Act, which gives workers the positive right to be protected from harassment and bullying at work. 

As we know, legal rights need to be enforced. In a sector where zero-hours contracts prevail, job insecurity is rife and access to trade union reps is sorely needed, workers will continue to lack any confidence in their complaints of sexual harassment or any health and safety issue being dealt with properly.

Instead, what we have is workers worrying about losing their job should they raise their voice.

The Conservative government has chipped away at employment rights, causing the most detriment to the most vulnerable casualised workplaces.

As a starting point, we need the introduction of basic employment rights from day one for workers and also the right for unions to organise in small workplaces. 

Siobhan Endean is Unite’s national officer for women.

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