Preventing workplace harassment and violence

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Launch of social partner guidance

Frances O'Grady, Deputy General Secretary

17 November 2009


Today's guidance is important for two reasons.

Firstly, as other speakers have remarked, the misery caused by violence and harassment in the workplace is unacceptable.

It can be merely unpleasant, but it is often far, far worse, sometimes scarring people for life - mentally or physically.

That has implications for employers too - in lost productivity, turnover, and absence from work.

But the guidance we are launching today is important for another reason, too.

It marks an understanding that violence and harassment are - if not totally predictable - at least preventable.

This raises broader questions.

Yesterday Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, spoke at TUC conference about economics called Beyond Crisis.

Dr Williams' address about the impact of economic situation has resonance for all of us.

He spoke about the impact of unemployment but also increased pressure at work.

In particular, he explained how a failure to take account of people's lives in how we run the economy can lead to working cultures that 'leave everyone more vulnerable, fearful and defensive - potentially violent in some circumstances, or turning violence inwards in depression in other circumstances'.

This is not an excuse for unacceptable behaviour.

But the statistics show that workers in many public-facing services - from firefighters to shop workers, transport workers, nurses, teachers and - of course - benefit advisers, are particularly vulnerable.

How we organise work matters too.

Ten years ago we launched the TUC's Organising Academy and I have the pleasure of formally receiving those organisers' end of year reports on the campaigns they've run.

In recent years the union Community has been campaigning for union recognition in the betting industry - a difficult industry to organise on any measure, characterised by low pay, big chains but small shops, a scattered and fragmented workforce.

But a key trigger for the workers - mainly women - joining the union has been their concerns about safety and violence at work. Betting shop robberies are on the increase, across the industry averaging 5 a day.

In jobs like these, safety and security - not just information, equipment or training - but ensuring that no vulnerable worker is forced to work alone - are key.

And in a 24-7 economy, safety in travelling to and from work is an issue too.

Talk to the young people in the hospitality trade leaving work in the early hours of the morning and you'll understand that staffing levels on public transport aren't just a concern for drivers and guards.

And talk to supervisors and middle managers who feel that they are under such pressure to meet unrealistic targets that they, in turn, put their staff under intolerable pressure, and wonder at what point that pressure may tip over into harassment from a supervisor or between colleagues.

I am pleased that this agreement tackles harassment in all its forms.

Nearly thirty years ago I was involved in supporting a grassroots campaign called Women Against Sexual Harassment.

This was a time when in some quarters the very term sexual harassment - never mind the actual experience - was still considered a joke.

We have made some progress since those days but none of us here would pretend that naming the problem has made it disappear.

But I am encouraged by the leadership of employers and unions, and all the organisations represented here today, enshrined in this Agreement, that demonstrates a determination to work together against it.

We know some of the risk factors, and we know some of the steps to prevention.

Now we also have practical guidance about what employers and unions can do.

This guidance is based on the tradition of social dialogue that prevails in continental Europe.

It is testimony to the fact that while there can be hostility and disagreement in the workplace, that doesn't have to characterise the relationship between management and union.

Of course, much of what we know about preventing violence and harassment dates back before the European social partners got together to write the agreement which this guidance seeks to promote and implement.

The HSE, ACAS and BIS - along with bodies like the Home Office and local authorities - have done a lot to promote action.

What this guidance adds is social dialogue - the idea that employers and unions can work together to tackle these threats.

Most large employers, I suspect, already have policies on violence and harassment, depending on their sector.

Many of them will, no doubt, have discussed those policies with safety reps and with unions.

But too few, from our research, have made formal agreements with unions about the issue, and that is what this guidance, and the social dialogue approach, seeks to promote.

The duty of employers is, of course, to protect their employees. I'm sure the ones here today don't need to be reminded of that.

But it is now the duty of unions, too, to make sure that this guidance is disseminated, publicised and acted upon by unions in workplaces where violence and harassment are real problems.

I'm glad that in the UK we don't have the sort of problems of staff on staff violence that in the United States have made the expression 'going postal' a wry reference to shootings in the sorting office.

But words can wound too.

So, the TUC welcomes this guidance, we will use it, and we hope that we can do some work in this country that we can share with our colleagues around Europe.

Thanks for listening.

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