Business alliance calls for employers to be made legally responsible for preventing sexual harassment

26 Jun 2019 By Maggie Baska

Employer groups, women’s rights organisations and unions call on minister to introduce new legislation

More than 20 employer groups, women’s rights organisations and unions have today called on the government to introduce a new law to make employers responsible for protecting their staff from sexual harassment at work.

Organisations including Business in the Community (BitC), the Fawcett Society and the TUC have signed a petition asking for a new legal duty for employers to take preventative measures to ensure their workplaces are free from harassment and victimisation.

Under current law, there is no legal requirement for employers to take proactive action to prevent harassment. Instead, the group argues, the onus is on the victim to report the assault to their employer, which can be isolating and potentially traumatic for the individual.  

The #ThisIsNotWorking Alliance – also backed by organisations including the Young Women’s Trust, Amnesty International UK and Time’s Up – called on Penny Mordaunt, the minister for women and equalities, to pass legislation which would shift the burden of dealing with sexual harassment from individuals to employers.

The TUC, which formed the alliance, said the law would be supported by a code of practice explaining the steps bosses would need to take to prevent sexual harassment, including having clear policies around harassment and victimisation and carrying out mandatory training for staff and managers. 

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said it was shocking that many people experienced sexual harassment and assault at work, and a new law would change workplace cultures to help end the problem.

“The government must strengthen the law to put responsibility for preventing harassment on employers,” O’Grady said. “This would shift the burden of tackling sexual harassment away from individuals, and it would help end toxic workplace cultures that silence those who’ve been harassed.”

The alliance also called on the government to enforce consequences for employers who do not comply with measures to prevent harassment – however, it did not detail what these consequences should be.

The government should give individuals the ability to report their harassment to a regulator, bypassing any possible toxic workplace environments that leave victims unable to speak out, the alliance added.

Chloe Chambraud, gender equality director at BitC, said the campaign “shines a light” on the steps employers can take to prevent sexual harassment at work before it actually happens. She said significant culture change was needed to end harassment across the board, but it must begin with transparency and action from employers. 

“There is strong evidence which shows that when leaders take harassment seriously, the rest of the organisation is encouraged to follow suit,” Chambraud said. 

“At the same time, from the point of view of responsible business, we know from experience that top-down regulation won't change behaviours on their own; the bigger piece has to be around culture change for both employers and employees.”

Bex Bailey, media manager at the Young Women’s Trust, said her organisation had heard a number of testimonies from women across all sectors about their experiences around harassment at work. Many, she said, were scared of reporting such behaviours “for fear of losing their job, with many not even knowing how to report it”.

“No woman should feel unsafe at work or unable to say something when she is sexually harassed,” Bailey said. 

She added that alongside protecting workers, employers should also make it easier to report abuse by colleagues as well as customers and put in place unbiased reporting processes that do not penalise victims.

Last week, the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN’s labour agency, adopted a treaty establishing a global set of standards to prevent, identify and address cases of gender-based harassment and violence at work. This would require states in the convention to develop national laws to prohibit workplace violence and provide protection measures and victim services to combat potential retaliation. 

The treaty – which was agreed at the organisation’s annual conference of workers, employers’ groups and governments – would require ILO members, including the UK, to take action to safeguard workers, trainees and jobseekers from harassment in the workplace.

It would also protect against harassment from third parties such as customers. 

The UK government is expected to launch a consultation on introducing new duties on employers to prevent harassment in the workplace, however it has not said when this would happen.

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