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Who’s responsible for women’s safety on their commute home?

With ongoing Tube strikes and taxi shortages, someone must take responsibility for women's safety.

By Zoë Grünewald

Caitlin Lee had no choice but to walk home after a late shift in her hospitality job in Glasgow. The last means of public transport had ended, and no taxis were available. During her walk, Lee was assaulted in the street. When she brought a grievance to her employer, they told her their duty of care did not extend beyond the workplace. They did not believe that the safety of staff when commuting to or from a shift was their problem.

This struggle is familiar to many women who work in hospitality. When shifts roll into the early hours, they have to calculate the cheapest, quickest and safest route home without the support of their workplace. Ella, 27, works as a waitress in a pub in London. Occasionally, her shifts will not finish until after midnight and, depending on the exact timing, she might get a bus home. If Ella misses her bus, she usually gets an Uber, but the recent taxi shortages and surcharges have made that more difficult. Once, when she tried to book an Uber, the quoted price was over five times the usual amount. “I was like, ‘all right, I’ll just sit outside the pub and wait until the surge dropped.’ In the end, I sat on the picnic bench outside the pub for an hour.”

It is not just hospitality where women are undertaking unsafe commutes. Some jobs may require overtime, or working late on immovable deadlines. Currently, the government offers a tax exemption for businesses that allow employees to take taxis home, but there are specific requirements, including that it must be after 9pm and an “irregular” occurrence. Dan Cullen-Shute is the CEO of Creature, an advertising agency based in Shoreditch, London. In May 2021, following the kidnapping and death of media executive Sarah Everard, Cullen-Shute wrote a letter to the Prime Minister – on behalf of Creature and other businesses in the advertising and media sector – asking that HMRC change the rules. The letter argued that “employers are currently disincentivised from keeping their employees safe before 9pm; and employees are taxed if they try to look after themselves. In a country where it gets dark at 5pm for a third of the year, this seems unjustifiable.”  

The government’s response, seen by Spotlight, came from the then financial secretary to the Treasury, Jesse Norman, who said that to change the timings would act as a “relief on general commuting”, and that any further such tax relief would be unfair because it would only benefit those whose employers provide such taxis. The reality is that a tax relief is already provided; the letter was requesting for the 9pm rule to be altered. As Cullen-Shute says: “Right now it gets dark at about 4.30pm… A 9pm cut off just felt bonkers to us.”

He has a point: women’s safety, perceived or otherwise, does not suddenly, dramatically decrease after the clock strikes nine. Indeed, many women feel it is the darkness that has the biggest impact on their safety, rather than specific times of day. Hannah*, a worker from London in her late twenties, says that after a certain hour her employer offers to pay for her taxi home. “However, during the darker time of year I always wish it could be earlier,” she says. “Later at night, people are spilling out of bars and would be intoxicated on public transport… It being lighter in summer somehow makes it feel slightly less threatening.” Gabrielle*, 28, a civil servant, agrees, saying that “feeling safe”, in this context, is when it feels “light and bright”. “In winter it starts to get dark about 4pm, so that’s when I start getting anxious when I’m walking home,” she explains.

Though Cullen-Shute was dismayed by the Treasury response, Creature and the other businesses committed to providing cabs home for their employees regardless, saying to staff “if ever you feel that you would be safer getting a taxi home then get a taxi home”. Is it a big expense for the employer? Cullen-Shute argues not, and certainly not relative to the value of keeping employees happy: “I would say it’s paid for itself.” For him, the problem is not the cost but the principle of a policy where “private businesses are effectively subsidising the government because of this patriarchal, archaic line in the sand that they drew a long time ago”.

Of course, that debate only applies to specific companies where irregular late-night working is required, and not for those in hospitality settings where late nights are part of the job. Following her assault in Glasgow, Lee’s company argued that their duty of care to her did not apply once she left the workplace. Lee describes the company’s position as amounting to “as soon as you stop making us money, as soon as you walk out that door, you mean nothing to us”. Cullen-Shute argues that it “misreads the contract, in a loose sense, between employee and employer”, and this argument could act as a slippery slope to not paying the living wage or giving employees their holiday allowance. He also says there is an inherent business incentive to all of this, because when employers care about the well-being of their employees, they get better results. “[Employees at Creature] do feel supported. They do feel looked after,” he says. “And they’re better at their jobs because of that, and we’re a better business because of that.”

The inverse of this argument, that employers disregarding their employees’ well-being may negatively impact their work, also holds true. Gabrielle says that during winter, the worry of her commute could stop her from completing her work altogether, as she would endeavour to commute only when it was still light. There is also a deeper, gendered problem at play, she argues, as men generally did not face the same concerns and were able to work longer. “I think it’s fair to say that if you want to get promoted or do well in your career, especially if you’re young and a graduate, then you are expected to do overtime and you are expected to work late into the night. If you don’t, you’re seen as not as keen to progress as quickly as other members of staff.”

The issue of women’s safety after dark has been exacerbated by further public transport problems. Covid-19 has led to the proposed closure of bus routes in cities, while in London, though Transport for London (TfL) relaunched the Night Tube after pausing it during the pandemic, that success has been interrupted due to strike action following ongoing disagreements between TfL and members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union over driver rotas. And as the New Statesman reported in November 2021, licensed taxis have become considerably more expensive and harder to come by thanks to a number of factors, not least the expense of driving, the pandemic-induced boom in e-commerce, and Brexit. Taxi shortages were part of the issue for Lee when she was forced to walk home. Arguably, however, even with better availability, the relative cost of taxis compared to the average hospitality worker’s wage, or indeed, many average salaries in London, might still make them unaffordable – Gabrielle stated that a taxi from her workplace in one end of London to her home at another could cost around £70.

Even when transport is cheap and affordable it carries a safety risk for women late at night. Ella was harassed on a bus on her way home from a late shift, and Gabrielle says she saw a physical altercation and a knife being drawn at her local Tube station. Between 2019 and 2020, there were 1,884 sexual offences reported on London’s transport network – and more recent concerns have been raised that some Tube lines do not have any CCTV on their trains. Gabrielle says her experience of TfL’s procedures in the context of reporting harassment are “really inadequate” and need reforming. When she reported an incident to the British Transport Police they told her that unless she was willing to go to court there was simply nothing they could do.

Even taxis aren’t without their danger. In 2019, the City of London withdrew Uber’s licence due to concerns over its safety policies. TfL recorded 14,000 fraudulent trips between 2018 and 2019, and multiple women had reported concerns about Uber drivers making them feel uncomfortable during the journey. Alex, 24, who works in financial services, was assaulted in an Uber when a colleague ordered one for her, after both had worked late. “I couldn’t report it because it wasn’t on my Uber account, and I didn’t want to tell the colleague,” she says.

There is no way to ensure women can get home safely. According to YouGov, 55 per cent of women have experienced harassment and/or assault on public transport, and four in five have experienced sexual harassment in a public space. Even without present dangers, women are still forced to operate in a state of hypervigilance, fear and anxiety when they commute after dark. As Ella says: “I mean, all TV has women who live alone getting murdered on public transport.” For most women, any travel after dark may be filled with uncertainty and fear – but there is a clear incentive for both employers and the government to think seriously about ensuring workers have safe, affordable and timely transport home, no matter the time of day.

* Some names have been changed.

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