For too long, women and girls have been unsafe in the workplace. An Opinium survey suggests 20% of the UK population has experienced some form of sexual harassment in the workplace. That is more than 10 million people – a shocking number. It is therefore imperative that the law changes to protect people in work. In these testing times, such legislation is more important than ever.
The 2018 Presidents Club scandal highlighted the extent to which current law does not protect people. In that instance, businessmen allegedly sexually harassed young female hostesses at a notorious men-only dinner, being instructed to wear “black, sexy shoes” and black underwear. Those women, who faced violations of their dignity, would not have had recourse to the law as it stands. Sexual harassment by third parties is a major problem in the UK. A 2017 survey suggested 18% of those who experienced workplace sexual harassment said the perpetrators were clients or customers.
Workplace sexual harassment is widespread and widely under-reported. A TUC survey suggested 79% of women do not report their experience of sexual harassment, for many reasons, including fear of repercussions, lack of awareness regarding their rights, and fear of not being taken seriously. Those concerns are heightened for people of colour, people in the LGBT+ community, and people with disabilities, who already face greater discrimination in the workplace. It is understandable why people do not come forward.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission found that in nearly half of cases reported, the employer took no action, minimised the incident or placed the responsibility on the employee to avoid the harasser. It seems that the risks of reporting sexual harassment can outweigh the merits. That is disgraceful in modern Britain. The problem is that the current laws on sexual harassment mean employers often adopt individual responses to institutional problems. That creates space for employers to minimise what is going on and leads to confusion about how to respond appropriately. Statistics show only 45% of managers felt supported by their organisation when reports were made to them. Ultimately, the current laws leave people who have encountered traumatic experiences unsupported. We can and must do better.
We need a shift in focus from redress to prevention. Currently, the question of whether employers have taken adequate steps to prevent sexual harassment arises only as a defence if an incident of sexual harassment has already occurred. That means employers are not required to take actions that prevent sexual harassment. Indeed, the EHRC found in 2018 that only a minority of employers had effective processes in place to prevent and address sexual harassment.
The Bill would provide the shift in focus so desperately needed. Clause 2 would ensure that employers prioritise prevention by imposing a new duty on them to take “all reasonable steps” to prevent their employees from experiencing workplace sexual harassment. That will not require employers to do anything substantially more than what they currently must do to avoid legal liability for acts of harassment carried out by their employees, but it would mean that employers could potentially be further held to account if they have failed to take those actions, first by an uplift in the compensation awarded at an employment tribunal, and secondly through the EHRC’s strategic enforcement.
An unacceptable number of nurses, paramedics, bar staff, key workers, and everyone in between, are being subject to harassment that causes various harms, including psychological, physical and economic harm. Employers should be required both morally and legally to take all reasonable steps to stop sexual harassment. The fact that the law of this country does not compel them to do so is a concern.
For too long, the onus for challenging sexual harassment has been on individuals. Introducing a standalone preventive duty for employers will shift the responsibility from individuals to the institution. It will prevent harassment and protect victims, driving a culture change around victim blaming. The Bill passing over into the House of Lords takes us one step closer to enshrining historic measures in law to protect employees from harassment in the workplace.
Wera Hobhouse MP is the Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, andhas been an MP continuously since 8 June 2017.