Saturday, 4 June 2016

Widespread sexual harassment of waitresses shames us all and must be stopped

My friend recently took her first bar job.  "Move bitch",said the manager as he brushed past in an inappropriate way. Thinking she'd been unlucky, Chloe took a job in a different bar, but experienced similarly degrading experiences.

I wish this was the exception. A sickening 90% of female restaurant staff experience sexual harassment. Most of the research into the epidemic comes from America, where the shameful abuse is no better than here. Legally, the situation in USA is worse, as some waitresses may be lawfully dismissed for putting on weight.  I am appalled to have found a "reputable" law website write that "scantily clad waitresses are surprised by sexual harassment".

There is quite a bit of "why waitresses put up with sexual harassment" media comment. Typically, it's the culture of tipping that gets the blame.  I'm not convinced by that.

Who is carrying out the abuse?  According to a study of 700 waitresses across America, 80% of waitresses have suffered sexual harassment from colleagues. 78% reported they'd had it from customer, and almost as many said management were also in on the act.

My own experience of representing waitresses, bar staff and hotel workers in East Staffordshire is no different.

The disturbing situation raises three main questions:

1.  What is wrong with society?  Never mind why are workers putting up with it....why is it happening in the first place?

2. Why is public silence deafening?  I believe this can mostly be explained by the fact that these workers have no collective voice.  Plus, it doesn't help that the quiet death of industrial correspondents means that every workplace problem is under reported, not reported, or misreported.

3. What is to be done?

I believe there are two big changes that could eradicate most sexual harassment:

1. What would happen if laws guaranteed full union rights across retail, hospitality and service industries?

Collective representation for all workers would bring real change.   Grievances and legal actions would change the culture.  Managers would soon learn that inappropriate behaviour results in a P45.   Colleagues would soon learn the same.  A bad reputation can follow a worker around like a bad smell. Workers at all levels would soon learn that it's not worth risking a job and reputation for the sake of being a sexual harasser.   Changing sexual harassment from "you won't be caught" to "you will be caught" would bring about the necessary sea change in behaviour that we desperately need,

Currently, it's virtually impossible for waitresses/bar staff etc to unionise.  Our laws are deliberately weighted against doing this. Eg Zero hour contracts make it so easy to sack activists without legal worries. Our laws need to be driven by the needs of people, not big business.

Why should people have to jump through hoops to secure human rights such as a voice and representation?  Why must we "opt in" for workplace rights when every other right is automatically enshrined in law? I don't need to "opt in" for trial by jury.  I can't opt out of it.  What's the difference? I can just about understand those who say that not being in a union is a "right", but making workers "opt-in" to having a collective voice and collective representation is wicked.  Just look at the misery it's causing.

Union-organised workers, in partnership with reputable employers, would find ways of robustly dealing with customers who remain wedded to sexual harassment. Sexual harassment still happens in well organised union workplaces....including where women are serving the public...but it's rare.

2.  Women need protecting from employers who continue to objectify them.   Better legal remedies will encourage better company policies.

So yes, unions could stamp out most sexual harassment,

But it's not just waitresses.  It's hotel workers, bar staff and numerous other occupations. What these occupations share is an absence of union representation. Unions could do so much good, if only our laws helped rather than hindered.

But back to the original question, what is wrong with society?   If this question isn't worthy of national debate, I don't know what is.

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