Unions need to establish effective policies and procedures on sexual harassment at work, in the first place to respond to the growing demand from women workers as the ripples spread out from the Harvey Weinstein scandal, and also to avoid being bypassed by employers.
Five migrant workers won a court case for sexual harassment and discrimination on 10 November against one of France’s largest cleaning companies.
They worked at the Gare du Nord in Paris for the contractor H. Reinier. The harassment of four women, by their supervisor, started with kisses and inappropriate touching and got worse: “he would come up behind me in the bathroom when I was leaning over to clean and rub himself against me”.
A male co-worker raised complaints and was sacked; he too was awarded damages in the court case.
Women workers in low-wage, often casualised, industries cannot get the media to take up their complaints of sexual harassment as might happen now with complaints against politicians and Hollywood figures. The Paris case shows that a strong code can open the way. France’s labour law, more comprehensive and better-policed than most other countries, includes clear provisions on sexual harassment, accessible to all workers.
Unions are entitled to pursue complaints under the code, and French labour law gives workers a more or less automatic right to union representation. However, in this case one of the accomplices of the supervisor was... a union delegate.
Complaints-procedure-by-media can work only for only a few categories of workers, and has an inbuilt risk of arbitrariness and lack of due process. The Welsh Labour minister Carl Sergeant was sacked from his job (i.e. sentenced) without even being told the allegations against him, let alone given a hearing, and committed suicide. Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones still seems to endorse the procedure of summarily suspending or sacking whenever it looks like someone might “embarrass the party”.
A TUC survey in 2016 found that nearly 25% of women had experienced unwanted touching at work, and 32% unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature. Only 20% reported harassment. Only 1% reported it to a union rep.
The TUC report made recommendations about reinstating the “statutory equality questionnaire” (abolished by the Tories in 2014) and reversing Tory changes on employment tribunals. It recommended little, however, about improving union activity.
Some big employers in traditionally male-dominated industries, for example the docks, are upping their numbers of women workers. They are doing this not because they think that women, these days, will be particularly more compliant, but because a mixed workforce tends to work more carefully and precisely.
DP World, the world’s fourth biggest container terminal operator, and Hutchison, the biggest, are both doing that. In Brisbane, Australia, where the dockworkers’ union is left-wing, the union has actively welcomed the move to recruit more women, and pressed for the women to be trained in all categories of work on the wharves.
Thanks partly to the union’s efforts, the workplace culture on the wharves is better than in posh industries such as finance and IT.
Bronwyn La Rosa, a union delegate at Hutchison, says: “We have over 20 women in the terminal now. There’s no sexual discrimination here in the workforce, no bullying”. It was different, she adds, in her previous employment — in the armed forces.
At DP World, the global employer has a program called “Our Compass” advertised as improving workplace culture. It is full of warm words:
“We create development opportunities for our people so they have rewarding careers. We recognise positive work, and give regular feedback. We listen to feedback from our people and take appropriate action. We take pride in our results and express gratitude for all contributions...”
Under it, for example, swearing is banned in the workplace. Some strong unionists have no objection. Robert Dodd, a Brisbane DP World wharfie, says: “There’s been a lot of swearing in the workplace. The company wants to change that, and I’m fine with that”.
No-one disputes the swearing ban as such, but many are more critical of the program. Rohan Wilton says: “It is sold as a drive to create a ‘positive culture’ in the workplace but in fact is intended to make us compliant and individualistic and not question management”.
Others say: “The management have plenty of opportunity to criticise us, but it’s made difficult for us to criticise management. But the company ticks all the boxes. They cover their butts”.
Workers have faced a stream of minor disciplinary complaints from management, including cases where male workers remonstrating with a few women workers reluctant to get involved with the union have been charged with sexism.
Unions need to formulate and implement codes of conduct which improve their own internal workings, and which enable them to hold the higher ground against management on this question.