Safe at Home, Safe at Work

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This blog post by Ann Henderson is part of our series for 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.

The publication of the European TUC Report Safe at home, safe at work: Trade unions’ strategies to prevent, manage and eliminate work-place harassment and violence against women’ in June this year marked a significant contribution to bringing about effective change in workplaces and in our communities, recognising the key role for trade unions and their responsibilities at local and national level, including through collective bargaining and workplace agreements.

The Report is extensive, having collected evidence from 11 countries, including the UK. Both the TUC and the STUC contributed to the case studies. It has been presented to the European Commission, and work continues on implementing its recommendations.

It contains many examples of good practice, and further establishes clarity between the different practical and policy responses to sexual harassment in the workplace as distinct from supporting those experiencing domestic abuse and how that impacts the workplace too.

Establishing a workplace culture that does not tolerate bullying or harassment is central to the Fair Work agenda, to which Scottish Government, the STUC, and employers signed up, in March 2016, endorsing the Fair Work Framework.

‘Fair Work’ is defined through five dimensions: effective voice, opportunity, fulfilment, security and respect. The Framework identifies trade unions as contributing to all these objectives, and recognises that collective organisation gives more effective voice to the needs and concerns of individual workers. In the context of tackling sexual harassment in the workplace, we envisage a key role for trade unions, and there is an opportunity here for the Fair Work Convention to examine some of the recommendations of the ETUC Report, and consider how their implementation could assist in Scotland with delivering on the Fair Work Framework.

The TUC ‘Still Just a Bit of Banter’ report on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace in 2016, produced in conjunction with the Everyday Sexism project found that for many women sexual harassment was not a one-off incident, but something that had happened many times throughout their working lives. Of all those polled, over half had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work. The TUC Report also made a number of useful recommendations, including the reintroduction of third party harassment legislation; recognition and facility time for trade union equality reps; and to extend full range of employment rights to all workers, regardless of employment status or type of contract. Employers are encouraged to provide decent jobs, good training, and clear policies with effective enforcement – and trade unions are also encouraged to provide training, to run workplace campaigns, and to lead on negotiating workplace polices. Effective enforcement of health and safety legislation and using the statutory powers of health and safety reps can make a big difference in workplace culture and environment.

With such a wealth of resources, and the recognition by the Scottish Government of the role of trade unions and the recognition of the benefits of collective bargaining, it is concerning to find that the Scottish Government recently published the Delivery Plan for ‘Equally Safe, Scotland’s Strategy to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls’ with absolutely no mention of trade unions, equality reps, workplace representation, or collective bargaining and trade union agreements. There is virtually no crossover with the Fair Work Framework, despite the fact that trade unions are represented on both the Equally Safe Strategic Board and on the Fair Work Convention.  The proposed pilot accreditation programme for employers gives no recognition to the extensive work already carried out through the trade union movement, nor the role that union reps can play in securing clear workplace agreements, rather than simply ‘urging’ or ‘encouraging’ good practice.

The ETUC Report also makes a distinction between tackling domestic violence and its impact in the workplace, developing good policies to support those employees experiencing domestic violence, and the strategies needed to ensure workplaces are free from sexual harassment and bullying.  In Scotland, a working group at COSLA (Convention of Scottish Local Authorities) included the four key public sector unions, the GMB, UNITE, UNISON, and the EIS, has been developing guidance on domestic abuse policies in local government workplaces. Hopefully this is being taken forward, although it is not referenced in the Equally Safe Delivery Plan.

In 1998, in a paper published for the Scottish Office Central Research Unit, Dr Sheila Henderson of Reid Howie Associates, brings together the summaries of four separate reports on the lived experience of, and policies to tackle, domestic violence. Moving towards the common understanding which shaped the first Scottish Government strategy, after the Scottish Parliament was established, the Report clearly states ‘Domestic violence occurs in all social groups, and is not caused by stress, unemployment, poverty or mental illness, nor by the women who experience the abuse’. The first Labour/ Liberal Democrat Scottish Government allocated significant increases in funding to Women’s Aid and projects supporting women and children, and set a different tone for all our work.

Holding on to that understanding of the nature of domestic violence is important, and can also frame our understanding of the way in which the abuse of power manifests itself through sexual harassment and bullying in the workplace and in our communities. Whether a woman works as a cleaner, admin worker, engineer or astronaut, sexual harassment in the workplace and in the wider community is unacceptable. Trade unions can play a vital part in developing a culture, and creating safe and healthy workplaces for all. Domestic violence does not distinguish between women by their occupation or income either, and our strategies must meet the needs of all women.  For example, if there is no serious investment in public sector housing, directly under the control of local councils and communities, then the options for women to find alternatives to living with domestic violence which are secure for themselves and any children are removed for all women, regardless of occupation.

In fact, one of the biggest problems for women who are dealing with domestic violence, is to recognise the support needed to remain in employment, and not be faced with losing a job through irregular attendance, workplace harassment, or unauthorised leave. Trade unions and clear collective bargaining and representation can ensure agreements are reached on periods of unpaid leave, support in transferring to another location if appropriate, and other measures which recognise this situation is not the woman’s fault. The ETUC study contains some excellent examples from other European countries.

In Slovenia, a workplace policy on sexual harassment and bullying has been signed between Mercator, a supermarket chain with over 10,000 employees, and the trade union ZSSS (commerce sector). This makes clear there will be no tolerance of such behaviour; identifies a dedicated staff team and helpline; and the trade unions report an 80% resolution rate on cases raised so far. A significant proportion of those cases raised, involved bullying and harassment from management team members, and the agreement between the employer and the union was vital in providing a route for dealing with the issues.

Unions in Bulgaria flagged up the vulnerability of all casual and migrant labour, highlighting the problems of low pay, poor working conditions, and psychological violence and harassment in the garment sector, with a mainly female workforce.

The importance of the law as an enabler for then progressing workplace agreements is illustrated in several country case studies. In Spain, countrywide legislation Organic Law 3/2007 on gender equality paved the way for unions to conclude agreements at company level through equality plans which include the prevention of sexual and gender based harassment.

In the UK, USDAW the shopworkers union has developed a ‘Freedom from Fear’ campaign, focussing in particular on safe travel to and from work, and improving lighting and security on entering and leaving premises. Representing workers in the retail sector, mainly women, USDAW also has taken up the issue of third party harassment, despite the removal of this provision from the Equality Act 2010 by the Conservatives government. Shop owners have responsibility to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for their staff.

For over 15 years, UNISON has been promoting workplace policies on domestic violence, following on from an effective ‘Raise the Roof’ report. A guide published in 2016 gives information  and raises awareness for to union reps about the causes and effects of domestic violence, gives information on signs which may indicate domestic violence is an underlying issue, and states that employers have a duty of care to their employees. Alongside this, a leaflet is available to all employees about how to seek help if experiencing domestic abuse.

The TUC’s Occupational Safety and Health Working group published a ‘Gender Sensitivity Checklist’ to assist Health and Safety Reps in raising issues with the employer, which includes checking ‘Does the employer recognise that domestic violence can become an issue at the workplace and treat the matter as a safety, health and welfare issue which needs to be dealt with sympathetically and practically? ‘

Tackling violence against women and girls is indeed everyone’s responsibility, and trade unions have a big part to play. Let’s recognise that, and draw on the work developed so far. Collective voice can speak louder than that of individuals, and set out boundaries and agreements in workplaces which will make a significant difference to women’s lives, both at home and at work.