When hotel worker Caitlin Lee left for home after a late Friday night shift last year, she knew it would be another struggle to find safe transport. Not only are taxis in Glasgow hard to come by so late, but for Caitlin, a low-paid worker whose supplementary taxi allowance had been cut during the pandemic, it was hard to justify the cost even if she could find one.
So like so many hospitality and night-time economy workers, Caitlin was forced to make the trek home on foot. And that very night, on her way home, she was sexually assaulted.
For years, unions and campaigners have demanded employers take action to ensure that workers who leave work late at night or arrive in the early hours before dawn are provided with safe transport. For far too long, those calls have fallen on deaf ears – until now, that is.
After Caitlin’s devastating experience, she raised a grievance with her employer – a highly profitable multinational luxury hotel chain. But instead of supporting Caitlin, management’s response was that they “are not responsible for your health and safety once you leave your place of work”.
For Caitlin, who also serves as Unite Glasgow Hospitality branch chair, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back. And from her horrific experience – one that’s all-too common for many in the industry – Unite’s Get Me Home Safely campaign was born.
‘Why should these decisions lie with women?’
The campaign had its official launch last week with a special Zoom event attended by Unite activists and officers in both the hospitality and passenger transport sectors as well as a number of Labour politicians from across the country, including MPs, councillors and mayors.
Speaking at the event, Caitlin highlighted the impossible decisions that low-paid women in the nighttime economy have had to make in the simple act of getting home safely.
“You have to weigh up if you’ll be able to afford the week’s shopping – or whether you should get a taxi home tonight,” she said. “Or you have to weigh up whether to get a taxi home or the last night bus home – which ultimately is a very unpredictable service. You don’t even know if you’ll be able to get that service. Sometimes you have no other option but to walk home late at night.
“Why should these decisions lie with women?” Caitlin added. “Why should we have to weigh up whether we can afford a week’s shopping, or guarantee getting home safely? These decisions should be on multi-billion pound hotel employers. That’s why Unite has launched this campaign – so that women no longer have to compromise their safety for financial reasons or otherwise.”
‘An absolute no-brainer‘
Although the wider national Get Me Home Safely campaign is still in its infancy, the campaign, which was first spearheaded by young Unite activists like Caitlin in Scotland, has already met with some key successes.
East Dunbartonshire council in Scotland, for example, has recently introduced a new policy whereby employers must provide safe transport home for their workers as a condition of their licence. And now, thanks to Unite young activists’ continued lobbying, a similar policy looks set to be introduced in Edinburgh as well.
East Dunbartonshire Scottish Labour councillor Alan Moir, who attended the launch event, called the campaign “an absolute no-brainer” and explained how he and other councillors worked together with Unite to get the new policy introduced.
“We managed to get complete buy-in from all sides, including traders,” he explained. “This is bread and butter stuff – doing what we’re supposed to do, looking after people in the best way we can. It shows that even when we’ve got our back against the wall in a minority government, we can still make a difference.”
Meanwhile, Unite researcher Irina Do Carmo explained how, working together with Unite’s hospitality and passenger transport sectors, the campaign is being rolled out nationally.
Irina noted the hypocrisy of the hotel chain that abdicated its responsibility for Caitlin’s safety on the one hand, while stating in its annual report that “it’s been responding to the challenges of the pandemic with ‘great care and thought in doing what’s right for its guests, colleagues, hotel owners and communities’.
“The report goes on to say the company has been providing mental health support, wellbeing, and parenting resources to employees working remotely and giving recharge days for corporate employees for working under intense pressure — yet during the pandemic this same employer suspended essential supplementary taxi travel for workers like Caitlin who are on minimum wage,” Irina noted.
Irina highlighted the eight key demands that Unite is making as part of the Get Me Home Safely campaign, which includes legislative change to extend employers’ duty of care; free transport home for staff as a condition of all liquor licenses; mandatory training provided by bus operators for transport workers on gender-based violence to include practical guidance on reporting sexual harassment and assault on public transport; municipal ownership of buses as a way to tackle the chronic shortage of night services; and national minimum standards for taxi and private hire, including an end to cross-border hiring, that will improve safety for women, among other demands.
Unite officers from the union’s hospitality and passenger transport sectors, including Unite national officer for passenger transport Bobby Morton, Unite national officer for hospitality Dave Turnbull and Unite activist in the taxi sector Paul James, all spoke on the different aspects of the campaign relevant to their sectors. They told of how the different sectors are working together to push for the campaign’s demands.
‘Employers need to take responsibility’
Meanwhile, West Yorkshire mayor Tracey Brabin and Welsh politician Hannah Blythyn MS explained how they are likewise working within their own areas to make the campaign a success, with Brabin noting that this was a clear opportunity to show what “what Labour in power can do”.
Unite national political officer Laura Smith, who also serves as Labour councillor for Crewe South, said at the launch event that she was thrilled “to see [Unite’s] political and industrial [branches] working together”.
The event ended with the premier of a Unite film on the campaign. Closing the event, Unite general secretary Sharon Graham had a special message for those in attendance.
“I’m extremely proud to be part of the launch of the Get Me Home Safely Campaign – and to be with the powerhouse of two of our key sectors in the union – hospitality and passenger transport, coming together to demand the right for workers to get home safely,” she said.
“Employers need to take responsibility – they cannot say that it is nothing to do with them,” Graham added. “We will not allow them to disregard workers in this way. If you have workers working late at night, you need to ensure that they get home safely. Caitlin’s employer used the pandemic as an excuse to stop the taxi home late at night. That would have prevented her from being assaulted – saving pennies that could cost a life.”
You can find out more about Unite’s Get Me Home Safely Campaign here.
By Hajera Blagg