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How this important new law will help UK workplace sexual harassment victims

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Moya Crockett
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Under new legislation, companies will be banned from using gagging orders or non-disclosure agreements in cases of sexual harassment and assault. 

In a move welcomed by #MeToo campaigners, the government has announced plans to outlaw gagging orders which stop employees from reporting sexual assault or harassment by their bosses to police.

Gagging orders, or non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), are frequently used in professional settings to prevent workers from going public with complaints of sexual harassment, bullying and abuse. It’s estimated that thousands of UK employees have signed such agreements in exchange for financial settlements, meaning that wealthy, abusive employers can essentially make sexual misconduct allegations ‘disappear’.

Victims of workplace sexual harassment and assault may sign NDAs if they feel they can’t face the emotional, psychological or financial strain of taking their employer to court. 

However, once they have agreed to a gagging order, they may then face severe financial penalties if they do decide to go to police.

NDAs can be used to silence victims of sexual harassment and assault 

The new legislation will be introduced as part of the forthcoming domestic abuse bill, The Times reports. Under the plans, companies will be banned from creating agreements that prevent employees from going to police with complaints of a criminal nature.

Businesses will also have a new legal duty to protect employees from unreasonable behaviour, from groping to offensive language, in the workplace.

NDAs have come under scrutiny since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke one year ago. The disgraced film mogul and his production business, the Weinstein Company, are known to have frequently used gagging orders to prevent women from going public with allegations that Weinstein had harassed or assaulted them.

In March, the Weinstein Company announced that it would be ending all of its NDAs related to sexual misconduct claims, and acknowledged that Weinstein had “used non-disclosure agreements as a secret weapon to silence his accusers”.

Zelda Perkins, who broke an NDA to come forward with allegations against Harvey Weinstein 

One of those silenced accusers was Zelda Perkins, a British woman who had been one of Weinstein’s assistants in the Nineties. Perkins broke an NDA in December 2017 to speak about Weinstein’s alleged rape of a colleague, and said she was paid $168,000 (£125,000) in exchange for agreeing not to discuss the alleged assault with anyone – not even her therapist.

“If you have the power and the money to create agreements that cover up a very serious criminal action, then I dread to imagine what other things are being covered up,” Perkins told BBC Newsnight.

She added that she thought the government should act to ban NDAs in situations where a crime such as sexual assault had been committed. “You cannot have a legal document that protects a criminal.”

Now, it seems as though the government is doing just that – and not a moment too soon. 

Want to know what it’s really like to be silenced by an NDA? Two women spoke to Stylist about their experiences here.

Images: Getty Images 

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Moya Crockett

Moya is Women’s Editor at stylist.co.uk, where she is currently overseeing the Visible Women campaign. As well as writing about inspiring women and feminism, she also covers subjects including careers, podcasts and politics. Carrying a tiny bottle of hot sauce on her person at all times is one of the many traits she shares with both Beyoncé and Hillary Clinton.

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