It’s an open secret – most recently brought to public attention after allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein – that sexual harassment is common in workplaces around the world.
But in some industries, such as hospitality and other service sector jobs, it’s virtually a daily reality.
The gravity of the situation is so great, it prompted hospitality worker and Unite rep Nilufer Guler to tell the BBC that she often feels more like a sex worker than a waitress.
A new poll commissioned by the BBC – the most in-depth of its kind – surveyed thousands of UK workers about their experiences of sexual harassment at work. The survey found a shocking 40 per cent of women and 18 per cent of men have been sexually harassed at work.
But this figure skyrockets to 56 per cent for women working in hospitality.
Nilufer explained how waiters are often victims of sexual harassment from all sides – they can be harassed by bosses, colleagues and very often customers, too.
“One table of three elderly very affluent men wearing suits – they bought the right to humiliate me,” she recounted. “They said to me, ‘Come join our table, come sit down, come take your waistcoat off, take all your clothes off.’
“I felt embarrassed; I felt humiliated; I felt disgusted,” she added. “I was also aware that there was very little I could do about it – and if I spoke out there would be very little done about it.”
The BBC poll found that those employed on precarious contracts – say, agency, part-time or zero hours workers, as so many in hospitality are – are much more likely to be harassed than those who are directly employed. While 43 per cent of workers on flexible contracts have said they’ve been sexually harassed, only about 30 per cent of those employed directly have been so.
Nilufer says that this is a natural consequence of working on an insecure contract where the balance of power is firmly on the side of the employer.
“There’s very little in the way of accountability processes,” she told BBC Breakfast this morning (December 12). “There’s a big culture of bullying and people take advantage – especially of women, migrants, young people and students who work in these industries. They’re in fear of losing their hours; of losing their tips; losing their pay.”
Nilufer said she’s only just started a new job at a restaurant, where she was sexually harassed by customers on the second or third day she began work there.
Still, in the process she sold a very expensive steak and wine – a sale that would, her bosses said, increase her share of the service charge.
‘Sense of disposability’
“There’s such a sense of disposability [in hospitality],” she explained. “When you’re on the minimum wage, a higher share of the service charge could mean you paying your rent on time.”
“Sexual harassment is so rife and seems to be totally acceptable,” Nilufer added. “People change when they are put into this position of customer. It’s almost a sort of bonding ritual to talk about a certain waitress.”
A TUC report published last year highlighted the problem of sexual harassment from third parties such as customers and clients, and urged the government to reinstate employers’ duty of care to protect their workers from being harassed.
Section 40 of the Equality Act 2010 held that employers would be liable for third party harassment if there were two previous incidents of harassment (not necessarily from the same person); the employer was aware of the harassment; and the employer didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent the harassment.
But in 2013, Section 40 was repealed despite the fact that 70 per cent of respondents to a government consultation opposed repealing it.
While a majority of women in the BBC survey said they were optimistic that the recent Hollywood scandals would lead to a big change in people’s behaviour, there are still far too few people – only 25 per cent – who report sexual harassment when it happens to them, mostly out of fear. Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland explained that this is precisely why working practices must change.
“The extent of sexual harassment being uncovered in the hospitality sector worldwide, as well as here, should raise alarm bells for everyone in the industry,” she said.
“No one should have to suffer sexual harassment – but just saying this is not enough – we need action to protect at-risk workers and a major change to the working practices that make people more vulnerable to harassment, exploitation and abuse,” Holland added.
“Unite aims to prevent harassment, and to promote dignity and respect – as well as ensuring fair and effective confidential procedures, including a strong trade union voice, to deal with it when it does occur.
“We also need statutory rights for union equality representatives to back up Dignity at Work policies. And everyone – governments, employers and unions must ensure a strong international standard when they meet in June 2018. This will be a powerful opportunity to advance all our core labour rights with an ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment against Women and Men in the World of Work.”
Want to find out more about what unions are doing to end sexual harassment in the workplace? Join the TUC’s webinar on Thursday here.