Employers must be forced to tackle sexual harassment, say MPs

Commons women’s and equalities committee calls for new laws to protect workers

Ministers should introduce new laws to force employers to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, MPs have said.

Employees were being failed by the government, employers and regulators, with current laws insufficient to protect workers and often not available to them in practice anyway, according to a report from parliament’s women and equalities committee.

It calls on the government to introduce a duty on employers supported by a statutory code of practice.

Government, regulators and employers had been “dodging their responsibilities” for far too long, said Maria Miller, the Tory MP and committee chair.

“It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces,” she said. “There is currently little incentive for employers to take robust action.”

According to a YouGov survey, 52% of women aged 18 to 24 say they have experienced unwanted sexual attention in public places, and 38% have experienced unwanted sexual touching. Reported sexual offences on trains and tubes have more than doubled in the past five years. Research from the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project suggests half of all working women – and two-thirds of young women – have been sexually harassed at work.

Miller compared the lack of action taken to prevent sexual harassment with the focus on protecting personal data and anti-money laundering measures – where companies are forced to adhere to strict requirements. “It’s time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment,” she said. “The burden falls unacceptably on the individual to hold harassers and employers to account when they will already hesitate to do so due to fear of victimisation. The current system is inadequate: the tribunal system must provide an effective remedy for employees.”

The report also said employers must protect interns and volunteers and prevent harassment by third parties, such as diners in a restaurant.

Campaigners and unions have accused the government of chipping away at employee rights that protected them against harassment.

In 2013, the government introduced employment tribunal fees, which were later stopped following a legal challenge, and scrapped a legal requirement for employers to protect their workers from abuse by third parties such as clients or customers.

(January 1, 2013) 

The government introduces employment tribunal fees of £1,200, causing the number of cases to drop. It is later forced into a reversal after the supreme court rules the fees are inconsistent with access to justice, following a legal challenge by the trade union Unison.

(January 1, 2013) 

The government scraps a legal requirement for employers to protect their workers from abuse by third parties such as clients or customers.

(January 1, 2014) 

The government abolishes an equality questionnaire that allowed sexual harassment claimants to ask questions about a potential claim before going to a tribunal. In a government consultation before the move, 80% of respondents opposed the proposal.

(January 1, 2015) 

The Deregulation Act removes employment tribunals' powers to make recommendations for the benefit of the wider workforce following complaints.

The report also calls on regulators, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to spell out what action they will take against employers who fail to protect their workers. And it recommends that current laws need to work better for workers - calling for employees to be given more time to submit a claim (currently only three months) and the introduction of “punitive damages for employers” who fail to protect them.

Sam Smethers, the chief executive of the Fawcett Society, welcomed the report. “We are delighted to see the committee agree with Fawcett that we need a new statutory duty on employers to prevent harassment,” she said. “The only way we can change workplace culture is to make it a proactive requirement. We have to move from treating this issue as a problem for the individual woman to deal with, to one that the organisation owns.”

The report also called for a “cleanup” of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) – which should be required to use plain English – and making it an offence to misuse an NDA.

“NDAs have their place in settling complaints, but they must not be used to prevent or dissuade victims from reporting incidents as is clearly the case now,” said Miller. “We expect proper regulation of NDAs and that any unethical practices lead to strong and appropriate sanctions.”


Alexandra Topping

The GuardianTramp

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