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The problem of sexual harassment at work has been ignored by employers for far too long

4 min read

The Women and Equalities Committee has today released a new report that identifies five priorities for Government action that are the first steps towards ensuring that sexual harassment at work finally becomes a thing of the past.

The #MeToo movement has put sexual harassment in the spotlight but it is not a new phenomenon. A BBC survey carried out last year found that 40 percent of women and 18 percent of men had experienced unwanted sexual behaviour in the workplace, including sexual comments, touching, groping and sexual assault. It is utterly shameful that in 2018 this remains an everyday occurrence, and in too many places is seen as part of workplace culture.

In January we launched our inquiry to turn the #MeToo movement into real improvements for people’s lives. Our report today identifies five things which the Government must do to tackle this problem as a matter of urgency.

Over the past six months we have gathered evidence from experts in employment and law, employers, ministers and importantly, victims of sexual harassment themselves. We examined what the Government and employers can do to protect workers from harassment and to respond appropriately when  it does occur. We also looked at the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which we are concerned may be used widely by employers to silence victims of sexual harassment.

We found that the Government, employers and regulators have plainly failed to tackle workplace sexual harassment and have been dodging their responsibilities under UK and international law for too long. As a result, the burden of holding harassers and employers to account rests too heavily on individuals, many of whom will not want to take forward a complaint for fear of victimisation or because they cannot trust their employer to take robust action. Corporate governance issues such as protecting people's personal data or preventing money laundering receive far more focus, with more stringent requirements on employers and businesses, than sexual harassment--but why? Why not put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment? This is about protecting workers from harm.

After carefully considering all the evidence we have received, the Women and Equalities Committee has identified five priorities for Government action. 

Firstly, the Government must put sexual harassment at the top of the agenda, by introducing a new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment at work, supported by a statutory code of practice outlining the steps they can take to do this; and by ensuring that interns, volunteers and those harassed by third parties have access to the same legal protections as their workplace colleagues.

The report also calls on regulators to take a more active role, starting by setting out the actions regulators will take to help tackle this problem, including the enforcement action; and by making it clear to those they regulate that sexual harassment is a breach of professional standards and a reportable offence with sanctions.

Enforcement processes must work better for employees. A statutory code of practice should be set out showing what employers should do to tackle sexual harassment; and by reducing the barriers people face to taking forward tribunal cases, including by extending the time limit for submitting a claim, introducing punitive damages for employers and reducing cost risks for employees.

The Committee also calls for a clean up the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), including by requiring the use of standard, plain English confidentiality clauses, which set out the meaning, limit and effect of the clause, and by making it an offence to misuse such clauses; and extending whistleblowing protections so that disclosures to the police and regulators such as the EHRC are protected.

Lastly, robust data on the extent of sexual harassment in the workplace and on the number of employment tribunal claims involving complaints of harassment of a sexual nature must be collected.

The problem of sexual harassment at work has been ignored by many employers for far too long. We call on the Government, employers and regulators to take up these five proposals urgently: the first steps towards ensuring that sexual harassment at work finally becomes a thing of the past.

Maria Miller is Conservative MP for Basingstoke and Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.


Commenting on the report, PoliticHome Member EHRC said 'We welcome the report by the Women and Equalities Committee and are very pleased that they have supported a number of our recommendations including our call for a new mandatory duty for employers to put measures in place to prevent harassment in the workplace.' Read the full response here

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