It all started with what at first glance might appear as an innocent comment here and there. But then the boss persisted.
Although Unite member and Woolwich Ferry worker Colleen* had told him repeatedly his advances were not welcome, they continued for years, and like so many women who are harassed by their superiors in the workplace, she suffered in silence out of fear.
“It made me seriously uncomfortable – it frightened me,” she explained.
But as recent widely reported accounts have shown, Colleen is far from being alone.
Following the allegations made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, people from around the globe came forward with their own stories on social media and elsewhere, showing the world that sexual harassment is in fact a reality for virtually all women and many men too.
This is especially true for workers who face the power imbalance inherent in employee and employer relationships.
A TUC report last year found that more than half of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with an even larger majority of young women – two in three – reporting the same.
A third of those polled have been subject to unwanted sexual comments at work and one in five having experienced unwanted sexual advances.
In most cases, the perpetrator was a male colleague, with one in five saying they were victims of a boss or manager.
And sexual harassment, the report found, is even more rampant when workers are on zero hours contracts.
It’s easy to understand why – if you don’t comply or you speak out when you’re harassed, you can effectively be ‘fired’ by having your hours reduced to zero, and you’ve got little recourse to the law.
In such an environment, coming forward is frightening – especially when your livelihood is on the line.
That’s why perhaps it is far from surprising that, as the TUC report found, four out of five women do not report sexual harassment to their employer.
But strong unions, Colleen would find out earlier this year, can make a big difference.
“It was so hard because all these people are above me,” she said when the harassment became unbearable.
“But it got to the point where it was seriously making me ill,” she said. “So I finally decided to speak out.”
Encouraged by a workplace rep, Colleen filed a grievance, but management failed to address the issue. And then something remarkable happened.
Colleen’s colleagues – the vast majority of them men – said enough was enough. In the spirit of solidarity, they downed tools in support of their colleague so she could get the justice she deserved.
In total, the union’s ferry workers planned 12 days of strike action. After two days of strikes, management came to the negotiating table and was forced to listen.
In the end, the manager who had harassed Colleen for years was dismissed, as was his manager – and the issue was dealt with in what she felt was a satisfactory manner.
Unite regional officer Onay Kasab said that Colleen’s story showed the power that unions and workplace solidarity can have in tackling a problem as endemic as sexual harassment.
“In far too many cases, women who are the victims of sexual harassment at work either suffer in silence or if they speak out, they’re moved to another part of the business; they’re ignored or they themselves become a target – they’re viciously ostracised and further abused. I’m proud to say that in this instance it wasn’t the victim who suffered the detriment of speaking out – it was the perpetrator.
“In achieving this aim, we decided not to rely on the law or internal grievance procedures – we took collective action and got it out in the open.
“The openness and solidarity from colleagues across the Ferry meant that management couldn’t do what it would under normal circumstances – it couldn’t hide or start rumours and isolate the victim. We showed when people get together and stand up against what’s wrong, solidarity wins.”
*Name changed to protect member
For more advice please contact your local rep or get in touch with your regional equalities officer.