‘UK workplace sexual harassment rules not enforced for vulnerable workers’

A new report calls for urgent action to improve conditions for vulnerable workers such as cleaners.

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The UK government has been urged to improve enforcement of the rules around sexual harassment in the workplace after research found there was weak oversight of vulnerable workers.

Focus on Labour Exploitation, (FLEX), a campaign group, has published the new working paper on the experiences of cleaners in the UK. It is the first in a series of working papers on the experiences and drivers of labour abuse and exploitation in three understudied low-paid sectors of the economy: cleaning, hospitality and the app-based courier sector. The paper highlights key workplace issues in the cleaning sector and the risk and resilience factors that impact cleaners’ vulnerability to – and ability to push back against – violations of their employment rights.

The report, “If I Could Change Anything About My Work…” Participatory Research With Cleaners In The UK is based on feminist participatory research which aims to bring the voices of people with lived experience to the forefront and include their perspectives in the policymaking process. It shows a third of the 99 people involved, most from migrant communites, experienced sexual harassment at work, including sexualised comments (15%), pressure for dates (12%), unwelcome sexual advances (9%) and groping and unwanted touching (9%). This harassment was made worse by the power imbalance created by low pay, insecure working arrangements, outsourcing and manager discretion in assigning shifts, says the report.

Other areas highlighted include pay:  61% experienced issues with pay, such as not being paid for all hours worked (31%), not being paid at all (15%), not being paid on time (14%), not being paid holiday pay (12%), being paid a lower rate than initially promised (10%) and being paid less than the minimum wage (6%). Twenty-one per cent felt they were never able to take time off ill, due to reasons including lack of access to sick pay (47% had no sick pay entitlements) and fear of losing work (20% said they had been afraid of losing work or having their hours reduced if they called in sick).

In addition, 60% experienced dangerous working conditions, including being asked to work without proper equipment (38%) and without the necessary personal protective gear (34%). In total, 86% reported experiencing health issues related to their work. These issues were made worse by outsourcing, being classed as workers rather than employees, the absence of proactive labour inspections, discrimination, immigration policy, language barriers and knowledge of rights and lack of union support.

FLEX says: “The issues we found – from inadequate PPE to people being forced to work when sick – are not new but are now being highlighted on a mass scale due to Covid-19. Moreover, the pandemic has disproportionately impacted those who are more likely to be in low-paid and precarious work, including women, migrants and ethnic minorities. This is particularly relevant for outsourced cleaners, who have much fewer protections compared to in-house staff, often receiving worse pay, sick pay, pensions and parental leave than their in-house colleagues.”

It calls on the government to proactively enforce labour standards, especially those related to pay, sexual harassment and other health and safety matters; ensure access to adequate sick pay; mitigate the vulnerabilities created by immigration policies and employment status; and introduce regulations to limit the negative impacts of outsourcing on workers.

And it says employers, including client companies whose cleaners are outsourced, could better use their position of power in the supply chain to intervene in cases of harassment experienced by outsourced workers and over other issues, such as pay and it says cleaning companies wanting to address the downward pressure that competing for cleaning contracts creates could advocate for the introduction of new regulation to level the playing field, such as joint and several liability legislation.

*Read the full report here.



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