From now until September, we have the chance to demand that the government makes employers responsible for preventing workplace sexual harassment.
It has now been 19 months since the #MeToo movement went viral. Since then, certain high-profile moments stick in the mind: the outpouring of women’s stories on social media; the black-clad awards ceremonies; the cathartic sight of a whey-faced Harvey Weinstein appearing in court for the first time. In years to come, when people talk about the reckoning against sexual violence and harassment that took place in the late 2010s, they’ll remember these vignettes.
Why? Because cultural moments like these are powerful. They start conversations; they fire up the blood. But it’s important to remember that while such events are affecting, real social progress doesn’t happen without proper legislative change. If we truly want to stamp out sexual misconduct, we have to look at the law.
On 11 July, the government equalities office (GEO) launched a public consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace, through which anyone who has experienced sexual harassment at work can share their views on how the law could be improved. Announcing the consultation, women and equalities minister Penny Mordaunt said she was “determined government makes a lasting change on this issue, clamping down on the individuals that think they can treat people in this way, and empowering the UK workforce to come forward and get the justice they deserve.”
As part of the consultation, the government will be considering how to ensure that employers in the UK do everything they can to stamp out workplace harassment. This matters, because employers currently have no legal responsibility to prevent sexual harassment at work. While sexual harassment has been unlawful under equalities legislation for over 30 years, companies still aren’t required to have policies that prevent it from happening – whether it is perpetuated by other employees or by third parties such as customers, visitors or clients.
As a result, the onus for tackling sexual harassment is placed firmly on the victims, who have to report harassment to their employer after it’s already happened. And this approach clearly isn’t good enough. According to research by the TUC, more than half (52%) of women and 68% of LGBTQ+ workers have been sexually harassed in the workplace – but four out of five women don’t feel able to report harassment to their employer. Consequently, this kind of misconduct is able to continue unchecked.
Now, the #ThisIsNotWorking alliance – a coalition of organisations led by the TUC and including the Fawcett Society, Women’s Aid and Amnesty International UK – is asking the government to introduce a legal duty on employers to prevent harassment in their workplaces. The duty would be accompanied by a code of practice, explaining exactly what bosses need to do to eliminate harassment – from having clear policies on the issue to compulsory training for staff and managers.
It would also allow victims to report their employer to the regulator anonymously if they felt unable to speak out, and introduce consequences for employers who don’t comply with the new measures.
Time’s Up UK is one of the organisations to throw its support behind the #ThisIsNotWorking campaign. “The Time’s Up movement exists in response to an urgent need to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace,” Dame Heather Rabbatts, Time’s Up UK chair, tells stylist.co.uk.
“This legislation will be of fundamental importance by imposing a duty on employers to be legally responsible for following up sexual harassment reporting and ensuring workplace protections are in place and ultimately take the onus off the individual.”
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, says that introducing this legal duty on employers is the most effective way the government could tackle workplace sexual harassment and bring about lasting change to workplace culture.
“It’s shocking that in 2019 so many people experience sexual harassment while just trying to do their jobs. Harassment wrecks lives and has no place in a modern workplace – or in wider society,” she says.
“Reintroducing protections against third party harassment is a small step in the right direction but it won’t change workplace culture. The government must change the law to put responsibility for preventing harassment on employers.”
The TUC’s initiative follows on from a Stylist-backed campaign against workplace sexual harassment by the charity Care International, which asked the government to reinstate third-party harassment laws, commit to introducing a legal duty on employers to prevent harassment, and support the most progressive version of an international convention to end workplace harassment around the world.
Brilliantly, that treaty was adopted by the International Labour Organisation at the end of June, meaning that countries which ratify it will be required to develop national laws prohibiting workplace violence and harassment. The world is changing – but there’s still more work to be done.
If you think that it should not be down to individuals alone to prevent and manage sexual harassment in the workplace, sign the #ThisIsNotWorking petition. The TUC will then keep you updated on how you can feed your views into the government’s consultation. The time for deeds – not words – is now.
Images: Getty Images