The story of the Presidents Club is all too familiar to women working in hospitality

A Unite survey found that 93 per cent of women in hospitality had experienced sexual harassment. 

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Women routinely experience sexual harassment in the workplace. This is a problem throughout the economy, but most often occurs in sectors where there is the absence of any job security. It is no coincidence that harassment is greatest in jobs where women have little or no power.

The appalling behaviour that occurred at last week’s Presidents Club Charity Dinner at the Dorchester Hotel in Central London is a prime example. According to the undercover Financial Times reporters who were there, young women were employed to act as “hostesses”. During the night, the report claimed, many were harassed and treated as sex objects. 

The organisations involved have condemned the behaviour reported, and said they will look into the allegations, while prominent attendees have distanced themselves from the excesses detailed. Yet the descriptions of physical and verbal sexual harassment experienced by the hostesses at the Presidents Club event will be all too familiar to women working throughout the hospitality industry.

Working in hospitality is tough. Pay is lower than it should be, which means workers are forced to rely on tips. And sexual harassment is rife. Unite recently surveyed women who work in the hospitality sector, and the findings are profoundly disturbing. Of the women who responded, 93 per cent said they had experienced sexual harassment, while 86 per cent said they had experienced unwelcome and inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing. More than half say harassment is not taken seriously by their employer and they are not confident that their employer would support them if they made a complaint.

The harassment comes from colleagues, managers and customers. And here is why low pay matters: more than half of women feel pressurised to tolerate harassment because of tips.

It is not just in hospitality where workers experience harassment. Unite’s women members who operate in the male-dominated construction industry also report that they are all too frequently subjected to harassment at work.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Unite works with employers to negotiate dignity at work policies. These are based on a commitment to restrict all forms of unacceptable behaviour, including bullying and harassment, and to treat all employees with respect.

Central to this is a clear set of values, and a zero tolerance approach to inappropriate behaviour, that is enforced from the chief executive down. This way, employees can be confidence that harassment will not be tolerated, that complaints will be dealt with swiftly and confidentially, and that inappropriate behaviour is a disciplinary offence. If the policy is working properly, certain incidents can be properly dealt with informally and the problem quickly resolved, which is often what the victim most desires.

Yet even if certain companies are willing to improve the workplace environment, there is a wider problem – our employment legislation.

In the mid 1990s, two waitresses at a hotel in Derby went in to clear the tables after a dinner. The guests were watching the comedian Bernard Manning perform, and as the waitresses moved around the room, he made a series of racial slurs and offensive jokes. Then he spotted them, and the jokes got worse. Not only that, but guests joined in.

The waitresses sought justice, and the Employment Appeals Tribunal ruled that, while the racist remarks had come from Manning, the hotel could be held liable for the women being “subject to detriment”.

Because of cases like this, the Equality Act 2010 had a provision for third party harassment, which was designed to ensure employers were responsible for protecting their employees from harassment by customers.

However, the Conservative government repealed this section of the legislation, claiming it was unfair that employers should have to worry about harassment from people “over whom they have no control”.

Yet if the third party harassment provisions were still in place, then women who feel they were subjected to harassment at the Dorchester last week would had a clear legal avenue to seek justice for their experiences.

Not only would Unite like to see third party harassment reinstated, but we would like to see the government go further with a Dignity at Work Act, which gives workers the positive right to be protected from harassment and bullying at work.

The #metoo movement may have shaken the establishment, but in a sector with zero hours contracts, job insecurity and a lack of access to trade union reps, workers will continue to lack confidence that if they make a complaint to their manager, that their complaint will be dealt with. Worse, they fear losing their job.

The Conservative government has chipped away at employment rights, and those who feel the change the most are vulnerable workers employed on a casual basis – like young women working at big hotels. Until we have a positive framework of employment legislation and trade union rights to safeguard dignity at work then the culture of bullying and harassment will continue.

Siobhan Endean is Unite the union’s national officer for women

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