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Sexual Harrassment Is a Trade Union Issue of Strategic Importance

Note from LeftEast Editors: This interview was published in Croatian by Radnička Prava. LeftEast, publishes an English version here thanks to our cooperation with Hungarian portal Mérce within the framework of the East European Left Media Outlet (ELMO).

Sexual harassment is almost completely normalized in the party industry – night clubs, bars, restaurants and concert venues. Sexist and sexualized comments, inappropriate and unwanted touching and systemic harassment come both from drunken customers who are not sanctioned properly because they keep the cash coming in, but also from coworkers and managers who tactically use their position of power. In both cases, sexual harassment is strongly intertwined with the precariousness in the sector: low wages and short term contracts. The hospitality branch of the British and Irish Unite the Union has recognized and worked on these issues for years. Radnička Prava had a chance to talk to their lead organizer, Bryan Simpson.

Let’s start with hard data that show the extremely wide presence of sexual harassment in hospitality sector. In 2018 you published results of the survey “Not on the Menu,” focused on this issue. What did the survey show?

As far as I know, it is still the largest survey of sexual harassment in hospitality, including anyone who works in a bar, restaurant, hotel, night club, casino, or a cafe. We had 2,800 respondents, 99 percent of whom were women and maybe three quarters worked in the night time economy. In the survey, we were quite clear with the definition of sexual harassment – it included sexualized language, sexual assault, rape. The results were just absolutely shocking: 89 percent of respondents said that they had directly experienced sexual harassment in the last year. The only other comparable survey was the one by the Trade Union Congress (TUC) from 2017. It found that 52 percent of respondents experienced harassment. Ours was so much worse and I think it was because we focused on hospitality.

Can you explain that last argument? How the precariousness of hospitality sector intertwines with such a high presence of sexual harassment?

I would say that there are three layers of power dynamics and exploitation which make sexual harassment so acute in hospitality. Firstly, there is the misogyny and gender discrimination that are present within all workplaces and all forms of sexual harassment. Then there is the next layer, the fact that workers in hospitality don’t have secure jobs and because of that they are not able or are less able to challenge sexual discrimination and harassment. If they lodge a grievance against their manager or against a drunk customer, they just won’t get hours, meaning they won’t get the work they need to live. Even before the survey, I worked on the “Better Than Zero” campaign, which was focused on getting rid of zero hour contracts in Scotland. These contracts mean: if you get no hours, you get no wages. Quickly we realized the connection between zero-hour contracts, poverty pay and sexual harassment. We found that the vast majority of women workers who were on zero hour contracts had experienced sexual harassment, either by customers or managers who would use their precarious employment status to exploit them. The number of hours they would get would depend on whether or not they would flirt or give sexual favors to the managers.

The third layer of the problem is about money: the manager, especially in a five-star hotel or prestigious bar, sees the customer through the lens of how much money they spend rather than whether or not they’ve been horrible to the staff. I remember a case that I represented a couple of years ago. A 19-year-old woman worked in a night club in Glasgow as a „shot girl,“ selling shots of alcoholic drinks to customers between 10 in the evening and 3 in the morning. She was not even paid a wage, but earned a commission from shots, so she was lucky if she was making 5 or 6 pounds an hour. She was told by the agency that employed her that she had to wear a short skirt and high heels. And that’s already bad enough. But while she was serving a group of around ten men, rugby players, one of them put his hand up to her skirt and sexually assaulted her. She pushed him back, refused to serve him and went straight up to the bar manager. The manager took 50 pounds out of the till and gave it to her to try to „pay her off“ and said „they’ve spent thousands of pounds tonight, we’ve got one hundred pound bottles of vodka on the table, I am not going to kick them out.“

It’s relatively obvious that money is the boss when it comes to posh bars, but often it’s thought that different subcultural bars and clubs with alternative music or even progressive politics, such as queer or vegan places, don’t follow the imperative of profit and therefore are less likely to exploit workers. I’m sure there’s even more such places in Britain and Ireland. What’s your experience – do these places also give low wages and zero hour contracts?

The motive of profit comes above everything else. It doesn’t matter whether you run a queer, LGBT, black, or vegan venue, you care about how much money is coming through the door. We just had our first bar strike in Scotland 2 months ago. It was in a vegan, queer venue run by a millionaire. We tried to negotiate for months, but when we went on strike the owner just closed the venue and sacked the workers rather than dealing with the union and paying the living wage. To be honest, we can’t categorize employers as good or bad. All employers are going to be bad until you force them to do the right thing. If you and I were to run a business, we would become like that. It’s not something moral like if you’re a business owner you’re an evil person. No. The system of capitalism means they have to exploit in order to make more and more profit. And the only way employers are going to do the right thing is if you at least threaten those profit margins. You have to either threaten the reputation which will affect their profit or the workers have to remove the labor, to strike, so they don’t make any profit. Those are the two options.

When they don’t want to deal with the sexual harassment in their club because it will affect their profit, employers will use some of the very widely known and spread and very problematic methods, for example diminishing, relativizing, and refusing to believe women about their experiences. These are also usually among the reasons why there’s a big percentage of sexual assaults that are never reported. What are your insights into this problem, be it from the survey or cases you represented?

Beside the data on almost 3,000 of workers, the survey also got in-depth case studies from people, but there is also the big difficulty and a problem that, while getting really helpful information you’re also effectively asking people to relieve their trauma. Vast majority, at least 60-70 percent had not reported it and by and large, it was because they thought they would not be believed either by the manager or the police. The other reason was that there were no policies in place within the company for the manager to follow, but also because workers were worried about repercussions, especially if the harasser was famous or the manager was senior in the company. I’ve represented people who’ve been assaulted and have chosen not to go to the police, which is absolutely justified, and that meant that the employers weren’t forced to sack the harassers. There was a case when the head chef who raped a coworker wasn’t sacked but just moved to a different venue. People in other industries wouldn’t believe what goes on in this sector but it’s true. We’re trying to change this by giving workers the collective confidence to take action together, to say “I’m not working until you sack that person or throw that customer out.”

Unite Hospitality has been fighting sexual harassment in the sector through different activities and campaigns: let’s talk about them. What were your first activities after the survey?

We started a campaign for proactive sexual harassment policies and training across the sector. This call for a proactive policy among employers is part of our „Fair Hospitality Charter“ containing primary demands for the sector. It asks employers not just to implement the basic legal rights, but to proactively act when someone is harassed and also to prevent the harassment from occurring through training and duty of care provisions. One of the best campaigns we’ve seen is called „Ask for Angela“ which was implemented in student bars. If an employer has that policy, a woman in a bar can go to the trained manager or a bouncer and ask for Angela as a subtle way to signal that there’s a guy trying to harass her, take her home coercively or spike her drink. They would kick the guy out, no questions asked. This campaign was very successful and a few employers have adopted similar systems.

You’ve also campaigned and worked very intensively on the issue of transport home for hospitality workers who work late shifts.

The Better than Zero initiative launched the „Safe Home“ campaign focused on this issue in 2015 together with the feminist collective Reclaim the Night, putting pressure on employers, local councils and authorities to provide transport home for workers who worked after midnight when there’s no public transport. But it remained a really big issue. Then one pretty awful incident happened to one of our leading trade union representatives in Glasgow, where we have a strong hospitality branch with 2500 organized hospitality workers. The former leader of that branch, Caitlin Lee, worked full-time for a five star hotel, one of the biggest multinational hotel chains in the world. That night when the incident happened, she was supposed to finish at 11 P.M., but it was so busy that the manager kept her on to 12 P.M., without asking for her permission. She missed her bus and walked home for around 2 and half miles and was seriously sexually assaulted on her way home.

The employer knew what happened but expected her to work soon after and wouldn’t even provide her with a replacement uniform as the police had to take DNA from the uniform she was assaulted in. What the employer didn’t realize is that Lee was the leader of a huge branch of organized trade union members. She not only went public with her story, but she also named and shamed the employer and is now suing them for a „duty of care“ breach. The problem is there’s no precedent for duty of care if the assault happened outside of the workplace. If she wins this case, it will effectively mean that the Health & Safety Work Act applies away from the workplace. So it’s a huge, huge legal case.

After this incident, you also launched a campaign „Get Me Home Safely“. What is it focused on and are there any tangible results?

„Get Me Home Safely“ has been focused on political, legal and industrial work on this issue. For example, if employers don’t have proactive sexual harassment policy or refuse to provide taxis home for their employers, we name and shame them. We also work on getting local politicians to support the campaign by either subsidizing or compelling employers to provide taxis home. After about a year and a half, we now have twelve councils across Britain and Ireland which, using local licensing protocols, means that a bar (in those cities or municipalities) cannot get a new or expanded alcohol license if it fails to provide taxis home for workers past 11 P.M. The best thing we’ve managed to get through this campaign is that so many young women activists have been organised through their union to collectively demand safe and free transport home from their employer.

I think it’s very important you mentioned young women getting active in the union because the problem of sexual harassment is often left out of the trade unions priorities. It seems to me that it’s often seen not as a “real” labor issue, but as something that only feminist NGOs should deal with. Could you give us arguments on why the problem of sexual harassment is a “real” trade unionist issue?

It’s such a good question because, number one: women are workers. They make up 55 percent of the world workforce. So if we don’t organize against sexual harassment, we may lose half of our members. Sexual harassment is an industrial issue and it’s strategic: we need to organize women workers around the issues that matter to them. Number two: if we don’t try to radically change the whole system, soon there will be no space for  unions to organise freely.

In Britain we’ve had a right-wing government for 13 years that has slowly chipped away at our right to organize and during the last two years has just full scale attacked our movement. They are now talking about banning the right to strike, by allowing employers to sue unions for going on strike. There are still some within the trade union movement who don’t think it’s important to organise young women and migrant workers and that we must focus on the members we already have, managed decline as they say. If we do that much longer, there will be no movement because they will all be retired. I don’t mean to be ageist about it – I have really good comrades who are 75 years old, they’ve taught me so much. But if we don’t fight for migrants and 20 year old women, then when they attack the trade union movement, there will be no one left there to defend it.

You’re talking about the right wing government’s attack on trade unions. How much can trade unions rely on laws and state in their work?

The answer to your question is simple: we cannot rely on the law to do anything for working people. And I’m saying this as someone with a law degree. We have had some of the most draconian trade union laws in Britain since Thatcher, for longer than I’ve been alive. But even if Jeremy Corbyn had become prime minister and been able to reverse some of these laws, it wouldn’t stop exploitation, especially in hospitality. 

We’ve had the Equal Pay Act and the Health and Safety at Work Act for 50 years but that doesn’t stop employers from paying women less for the same work and from putting workers in danger. The only thing that stops this is workers coming together and collectively demanding change.

In a nutshell, that’s the point of a union and the movement we’re successfully building in Hospitality. So far, with thousands of new members and dozens of industrial wins – it looks like we’re starting to make a serious difference.