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Sexual harassment of young women is rife - the next government needs to act

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Young women don't just have to worry about unwanted attention from colleagues at work, but also customers, clients or other “third-parties” they interact with as part of the job.

Around two thirds of young women have been sexually harassed at work. This is unacceptable, which is why at this general election we're calling on all parties to do much more to protect workers from sexual harassment at work.

And it's also why the TUC, as part of the #ThisIsNotWorking alliance, is calling on the next government to introduce a new, easily enforceable legal duty that requires employers to protect workers from sexual harassment and victimisation before it occurs.

Harassment is inextricably linked with power, and young women are especially at risk due to their relatively junior position in the labour market, overrepresentation in insecure forms of work. And, of course, because they are women.

Protection no matter what your job

Power imbalances are more pronounced in precarious and insecure work, where the employer holds all the cards.

Young women are more likely to be in precarious forms of work - and the link between this and sexual harassment is no coincidence.

Young women in casualised work and on short, fixed-term contracts are less likely to be unionised too, and therefore less likely to feel able to challenge sexual harassment when they experience it.

Every worker should be protected from sexual harassment and victimisation regardless of employment status.

A new legal duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment should cover workers outside a “typical” employment contract and apply to those on zero-hour contracts, working irregular shifts and in the gig economy, across supply chains, freelancers – as well as in unpaid roles such as volunteers and interns.

Employers should not be able to outsource their responsibilities.

We need to establish a system of joint and several liability across employers’ supply chains, to ensure they can still be found liable for any breaches of the core employment rights of the people who do work for them, sending a clear message to employers and contractors.

Tackling harassment from third-parties

According to TUC research, over one third (36 per cent) of 18 to 34-year olds who have experienced some form of harassment, abuse or violence at work said it was carried out by a customer, a client, a patient or another member of the public (a “third-party”) that they interact with as part of their job.

And 57 per cent of young workers who had been subjected to third-party sexual harassment had been subjected to it three or more times.

Yet fewer than half of these young workers reported these incidents to their employer.

Some employers claim it’s not possible to stop third-parties from harassing staff as they have no direct control over them.

But an employment relationship is between the employer and a worker – the employer’s responsibility to ensure good health, safety and wellbeing is to their workers.

As well as a new preventative duty, the government must reintroduce and strengthen part of the Equality Act 2010 that explicitly protects workers from third-party harassment.

This will send a clear message that an important part of employers’ duty of care is to protect their workers from third-parties.

Current legislation is not enough

Existing government and employer responses to sexual harassment are inadequate, failing to protect women and tackle the sheer scale of the problem.

The way the current law works has meant too many employers see sexual harassment as an individual matter, rather than a workplace one, and therefore their responsibility to prevent.

This means their actions – when they do something - are focused on responding to complaints, rather than putting things in place to stop harassment from happening in the first place.

Trade unions know the only way to respond to collective issues is through collective solutions. Employers must do more to protect workers.

Trade unions demand change

Focusing on an employers’ duty to prevent sexual harassment is a proportional response to the prevalence of harassment at work, promoting safe and dignified work for all, and sending a strong message that harassment will not be tolerated in any form.

Trade unions must have a say in how this new law is designed, implemented and enforced.

We can be key strategic partners in the enforcement of the new preventative duty and in developing the appropriate Code of Practice, as well as negotiating for training, zero-tolerance policies and safe reporting mechanisms for staff on a workplace level.

EHRC research showed that when someone reported harassment to their union rep, the outcome was more positive.

And collective bargaining is the best way to raise workplace standards and ensure compliance with the new preventative duty.

But we need your voice to make sure the government listens.

Young Workers Month starts on 1 November and runs until the end of the month. It provides a dedicated, annual space for the movement to work together to give voice to young workers. #youngworkersmonth