Hollywood and Westminster have been rocked by allegations of sexual harassment, but it’s junior staff and those on “precarious” contracts across other sectors who are less likely to come forward through fear of losing their jobs, experts say.
The power dynamic of sexual assault and the pattern for predators to target victims who don’t always know their rights mean that the hospitality industry and workers on temporary or zero hour contracts are facing additional challenges when it comes to sexual harassment.
“You don’t often find a cleaner, a temp worker, a zero hours retail person saying ‘screw all of you guys, I don’t need a job’. That’s actually the opposite of what they’re saying, which is actually ‘I will do anything for a job, please just let me stay’,” Michael Newman, a discrimination and employment law specialist at Leigh Day, tells HuffPost UK.
A Trade Union Congress (TUC) report last year into sexual harassment found that 67% of women in the hospitality and leisure industry reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment compared to an average of 52%.
The report found: “Perpetrators of sexual harassment are often third parties. Women working in retail, hospitality, healthcare, care, transport and many other sectors deal with clients, patients, and customers on a daily basis and currently have little protection from their employer when facing harassment. Reintroducing a duty on employers to act where an employee is being harassed by a third party would be an important step in tackling workplace sexual harassment.”
Whether it involves filmmaking or bartending, a pattern appears to have emerged of powerful men targeting women – and at times, men – who are less likely to make a fuss.
Experts suggest a culture of silence means that those who are financially vulnerable or more susceptible to losing their jobs often feel that they cannot report sexual harassment allegations.
Scarlet Harris, senior strategy and development officer at the TUC, tells HuffPost UK: “Sexual harassment is very much about the power dynamic.
“It’s certainly younger women that are likely to experience sexual harassment and I think it’s fair to say that the more junior you are in an organisation, the more likely it is that you will experience sexual harassment, because of that power dynamic.”
This month has seen an avalanche of sexual harassment claims levelled against film producer Harvey Weinstein and last week it emerged that Westminster MPs have been caught up in allegations of sexual misconduct.
Danielle Parsons, an employment lawyer at Slater and Gordon, says that, although no industry is immune from sexual harassment, more junior members of staff are more susceptible to such abuse because of the power dynamic.
Parsons says: “Sexual harassment can occur across all industries but generally it would happen where you have that particular dynamic, you have someone in a position of power and you have somebody junior who is reporting to them.”
Harris says that sexual harassment is “absolutely everywhere”, but that agency workers, as well as those on temporary and zero hour contracts find it more difficult to report experiences of sexual harassment.
This is because the nature of temping means that staff are moving around in different oranisations, potentially finding themselves in a new workplace where they don’t know anyone, the culture or who to report harassment allegations to.
“Very often the perpetrators of sexual harassment are very good at honing in on the person who’s least likely to know how to deal with it and will spot someone who is more vulnerable and will prey on them because they’re an easy target,” Harris says.
Furthermore, hospitality workers have the added risk of third party harassment.
Roles can include restaurant and bar staff, hotel workers and receptionists. Jobs where employees are working with customers who might be inebriated might also face additional unwanted attention, as customers might feel particularly entitled to make unsolicited advances.
Sexual harassment can be “humiliating to the victim”, Parsons says and can manifest itself in a number of ways, such as bullying, intimidating and offensive behaviour.
It’s not just women that have sought Parson’s help for sexual harassment. The solicitor says that on one occasion a male secretary came to her about “upsetting and intrusive comments” made about his sexuality by his manager who was harassing him.
Newman says that, although he has not seen an increase in the number of clients coming forward, the problem “isn’t getting better”.
“I haven’t seen them drop off. It’s sadly consistent, I think that’s the problem,” he tells HuffPost UK.
“It’s just a steady trickle and it keeps happening. Every time a new complaint comes in it’s like ‘oh this is an industry I haven’t see before, but why am I surprised?’.”
He agrees with Parsons and Harris that the more junior someone is the more prevalent sexual harassment may be, adding: “The opportunities for exploitation are greater.”
But sexual harassment can happen “right up the food chain”.
“People who you think are very serious who, for a lot of their jobs call the shots, but they will still be for some situations beholden to men in positions of power and that’s when things can happen, sadly,” Newman says.
Newman admits that those who seek his help are often at a stage where they have the means to take the complaint further – an option that might not be available to those in a more vulnerable position, but financially and professionally.
“Often if you are being harassed, if you are in your job and want to stay in your job, the chances are you’re not going to complain,” Newman says. “And so of course I never hear about those. Those are people who don’t tend to come to me.”
Newman says people who are not worried about their career prospects being threatened, perhaps because they are leaving the sector, or people who have reached a certain level of security are more likely to come forward.
Examples of sexual harassment that he has dealt with varies, but includes lewd comments and innuendos, physical contact and even other advances, including non-consensual sexual conduct.
For employees experiencing sexual harassment at work, they don’t have an unlimited amount of time to file a case with an employment tribunal.
The time limit currently stands at three months, although lawyers are urging that this cap be doubled.
Those who are experiencing sexual harassment at work are advised to talk to their manager, keep a record of any incidents and collect evidence of any inappropriate encounters and to talk to their trade union representative.
If you have been affected by sexual harassment at work but you felt you couldn’t speak out about it, contact firstname.lastname@example.org