Tackling sexual harassment

Sexual Harassment is in the news, and that in itself is bad news. Bad news that this is a scourge that shows no signs of disappearing soon.  Bad news because it is both reflective and fuelling of misogyny in our society.  Bad news because part of the picture is the failure of some trade unions to live their values, becoming contaminated with sexual harassment rather than a progressive bulwark against it.

In a special episode of the Union Dues podcast, we step into this fray.  Guided by Andrea Oates, author of an excellent new LRD publication on sexual harassment, we drill down into questions of definitions, prevalence legal remedies, and effective union campaigns – on awareness, prevention, reporting, monitoring and, of course, representation.

But there are attendant challenges – a firmly established pattern of under-reporting, alleged aggressors and sexual harassment survivors being not just colleagues but members of the same union, and the reluctance by employers to act to defend workers when perpetrators are third parties – customers, for example.

Legal protections are not enough

The Equality Act (2010) and Health and Safety At Work Act (1974) are the main legal pillars of protection, but in an arena where direct evidence of sexual harassment can be sparse, denial likely and witnesses rare it is worth, as Andrea tells us,  to bear in mind that while a court conviction requires the question to be settled “beyond reasonable doubt”, an Employment Tribunal will decide matters on the “balance of probabilities”, and part of the equation could be statements from friends and colleagues of the survivor.  Then again, median awards from an ET in cases of sexual harassment are barely £18,000.

There are other pieces of legislation too – from the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 to laws on privacy, assault and malicious communications. 

There is a lot of law,” says Andrea,” but it clearly isn’t working.”  The long-awaited never-spotted Employment Bill would be an obvious place to strengthen existing provisions – if only the government would deign to publish it.

Unions are, sadly, not immune

But sadly union structures are not been immune from misogyny and sexual harassment.  And unions are clearly bound, by the 1974 act, just as all employers are, to exercise a duty of care for their workers.  

But three successive devasting reports by KCs – Karon Monaghan into the GMB, Bruce Karr into the RCN and Helena Kennedy into the TSSA – showed how those unions had become delinquent with awful consequences for female staff and activists.  No surprise that the #meTUwomen came into being to give a voice to those denied one for so long.

The LRD booklet doesn’t ignore or minimise these matters, but places them in the context of the remedial and preventative work being done across the movement, with unions such as  ASLEF and BFAWU being particularly pro-active.

The Union Dues podcast takes its lead from this, and we hear from Fliss Premru on how #meTU came into being, and what changes it seeks to achieve.  And Sarah Wooley, General Secretary of the Bakers’ and Food Workers’ union gives her unique and powerful perspective on the steps she has taken to strength the democracy and unity of her own union, why the movement needs to get its house in order, and how we can tell if we are making progress.

This podcast is not always comfortable listening – nor should it be.  But if you want the true and complete trade union view on sexual harassment, it is a must-hear event.

You can access this episode at https://bit.ly/3NPk0EN.

Access past episodes at bit.ly/DuesUnion.

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