By Ines Lage, SW TUC Policy and Campaigns Support Officer
The TUC is a national federation of 50 trade unions that collectively represent the voices of over 5.6 million workers in Britain. As the regional TUC office in the South West, we work with unions, their members and relevant stakeholders to improve working life and promote equality for all workers in the South West. This includes protecting all workers from gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace.
Unions have always been at the forefront of equality and justice and we continue to make progress in bargaining for equal rights and protections at work; whether it is equal pay, flexible working, pensions, or bullying and harassment.
However, despite all we have achieved, a 2016 survey ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter?’ carried out by the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project, found that over half (52%) of women had experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace in the last 12 months. The figures are starker for young female workers – 2 in 3 will experience sexual harassment in their workplace.
Gender-based violence and harassment can take on multiple forms, and can take place anywhere – whether on the shop floor, in an office or on the streets during the course of employment. It can be committed by staff, both colleagues and mangers, but also clients and customers.
Bristol, and the rest of the country, has seen real wages fall by more than 10% from 2007 to 2015. On top of that, Bristol has seen a rise in insecure work. Comments from our unions and their worker reps have shown this climate has not encouraged employers to address equality issues; in fact, the majority of unions tell us it has made matters difficult.
This is of great concern because our report also highlighted that gender-based violence and harassment is often higher in jobs or sectors where work is temporary or precarious, or where wages are low. And as living costs continue to rise whilst wage growth drops, there is a greater risk that women will remain in unsafe environments in a bid to keep their job and income.
More attitudes need to change and there need to be greater steps taken, both on a local and national level to protect workers from such abuses. Within industries or certain workplace sectors, there still exists the idea that certain discriminatory conduct is typical or ‘to be expected’ and therefore does not constitute harassment.
Unfortunately, for all the increasing wealth of evidence on women’s experiences of sexual harassment and the effect it can have emotionally, professionally and financially, gender-based violence is far too often overlooked and underestimated.
Good work has to treat people fairly, with equality, and above all, be safe. There should be no hiding places in Bristol for discrimination. Workers should not feel frightened to talk about unfair treatment, harassment or violence due to their gender, or indeed other characteristics.
Frances O’Grady, TUC General Secretary, said at the 2017 Women’s Conference, “trade unionism…is about compassion… justice, dignity and common sense. It’s about a culture that celebrates the contribution of working people from all walks of life.”
We therefore want more workplaces to welcome and recognise unions so that they can help employers create and incorporate better policies and procedures to combat gender-based violence in the workplace.
In order to do this, employers should also better support union representatives by allowing them time off for training and time to deal with any issues concerning gender-based violence as well as sexual harassment in the workplace. Like trade unions and the South West TUC, employers must also adopt a zero tolerance approach to sexual harassment and act accordingly.
We will continue to work with trade unions on how best to combat gender-based violence in workplaces, also encouraging them to sign the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge. We will also train workers’ reps on equal rights and opportunity in the workplace and train them on how to implement effective policies and procedures with employers on tackling gender-based violence and harassment.
By signing the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge, the South West TUC confirms that we will continue to push for decent jobs in Bristol, fight to end discrimination and gender-based violence, and support unions to ensure that all workers are protected from abuse and harassment.
The law is clear but there is a long way to go when it comes to attitudes in the workforce and those taken by employers. The TUC wants to see the reintroduction of section 40 in the Equality Act 2010, which allowed for third parties to take legal action against those found to be committing gender-based harassment. It is not right that those who are victimised and fearful of losing their jobs have to be the ones to speak out.
We also want to see more employers recognise unions, but also have more workers join unions. As is the case with other types of gender-based violence, sexual harassment in the workplace is inextricably linked with power, whether the perpetrator is abusing a position of power by harassing someone they perceive as less powerful, or whether the harassment is being used as a means to disempower the target of their harassment. Having the presence and support of a union to fight your corner, will hopefully help victims come forward but it can also be beneficial for the employer as unions can support them to create and implement effective policies and procedures on gender-based harassment.