Throughout my late teens and early twenties, I worked in pubs and bars. I started my first proper job soon after I turned 18 (before that I’d done bits of babysitting for family friends, and briefly had a paper round) after answering an advert posted on Facebook. I told my boss I wanted shifts on Friday and Saturday nights but was sometimes asked to work until after midnight on weeknights – leaving me exhausted in my sixth form classes the next day.
I could have refused, but then I might not have been given shifts at all. As I was on a zero-hours contract my employer was under no obligation to offer me work. I liked earning money to spend on clothes and going out with my friends, so I kept my mouth shut. And when my manager texted me out of the blue on a night I wasn’t working – telling me he had cocaine and champagne and asking me to come to his hotel room – I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Unless I made it clear I wasn’t interested, there was a risk the situation would escalate. But I needed to find a way of doing so without offending him, otherwise I could lose my job.
Rejecting a man’s sexual advances without causing offence is a challenge most women have struggled with at some point. We’re socialised to believe we have a duty to be nice. That we should be flattered someone is interested in us, however uncomfortable the situation feels. Sometimes, when men feel insulted they become violent. I have a friend who laughed at a stranger who attempted to chat her up in a club and was punched in the face as a result. I wasn’t scared my boss would physically hurt me – at least not at a conscious level. But I was aware of his power over me as an employer, which was exacerbated by the insecure nature of my contract.
In the end I quit. After a couple of months of creepy comments and “accidental” physical contact, I determined that the pros were outweighed by the cons. Because I was living with my parents and only really working for spending money, the decision was fairly easy. Becoming unemployed didn’t place me at risk of hunger, homelessness or debt. I had no dependents to support. I didn’t need to worry about being classed as “voluntarily unemployed” by the JobCentre and being denied out-of-work benefits for 26 weeks as a result.
Most people in insecure employment are not middle-class teenagers with parents who cover all of their basic living costs. Many people on zero-hours contracts or in “gig economy” faux self-employment – as cleaners, delivery drivers and all-purpose dogsbodies – rely on these unreliable income streams to keep a roof over their heads. The majority are women. Research has found that experiences like mine are common place. In the US, 40 per cent of female fast food workers have experienced sexual harassment at work – including sexual jokes, teasing, touching, kissing and comment about sexual orientation. Up to 90 per cent of waitresses report sexual harassment from both customers and colleagues. Quitting often isn’t a viable option.
Occasionally, particularly egregious examples of workplace sexual exploitation will make the news. A few months ago the Scottish Sun reported on a care home manager in Scotland who pressured a zero-hours employee into sleeping with him, promising her a full-time contract if she complied. Mainly, though, as a society we seem content to turn a blind eye to the issue.
The relationship between employer and employee involves an imbalance of power. Under capitalism, most of us sell our labour in order to pay for the things we need to stay alive. It should come as no surprise to anyone with even the vaguest understanding of human behaviour that some employers are prepared to exploit this unequal dynamic for sexual purposes. In the factories of the Victorian era, poverty-stricken women and children were regularly raped and abused. It’s the job of the state to protect workers: by introducing employment regulations, helping with legal costs and providing a welfare safety net that sustains people through periods of unemployment.
Not only does the current UK government seem uninterested in fulfilling this duty of care – over the past several years it has actively made things worse. Cuts to legal aid have made it all but impossible for many workers to speak up about sexual exploitation and other workplace abuse. Changes to the benefits system have made unemployment an even more terrifying prospect than it already was. A token effort has been made to respond to the growing use of zero-hours contracts, but employers won’t be prevented from using them. Meanwhile, the recently released Taylor review offers little hope of increased security for gig economy workers.
Amid the justified outrage about abusive messages sent to women MPs, it seems worth reminding ourselves that the consequences of policy decisions taken by those politicians are also a feminist concern. Every time this government has hacked away at the welfare system, it has placed women at increased risk. There are women stuck in abusive relationships because the alternative is homelessness. Mothers forced into sex work just to feed their children. Millions of UK women endure derogatory sexual comments, and worse, in the workplace. Many lack the freedom politicians have to resist or complain.
If the experiences of the poorest, most vulnerable women matter less to someone than those of female MPs directly complicit in their suffering, I struggle to see why they should call themselves a feminist at all. Gender inequality is primarily about power – and power has an undeniable economic dimension. Protecting women from abuse requires more than just policing public discourse, we need to address the material conditions that leave them open to exploitation.