Unite Hospitality: Organising against sexual harassment and gender-based violence
How hospitality workers are organising against sexual harassment and gender-based violence
“There’s no protection for Hospitality workers,” say Caitlin Alexandria Lee. She’s one of the hospitality workers who have taken to organising as a response to the governmental and managerial decisions that have affected staff since lockdown restrictions were first introduced in March 2020. She’s the chair of the Glasgow branch of Unite Hospitality. Her initial interest in her union was triggered by mass redundancies at her workplace at the beginning of the pandemic, but since then she and her branch have set their sights on fighting sexual harassment and gender-based violence. This progression makes sense; hospitality is a very gendered industry. Not only are waiting staff overwhelmingly women, while managers are more likely to be men, workers in the industry are also exposed to alarming levels of sexual harassment and gender-based violence. Any conversation about workers’ rights under these conditions must confront this reality.
Caitlin says that the campaign started after Sarah Everard’s murder and the police brutality at Clapham Common. “It really, really affected me, and I thought, ‘what can I do?’ We were there having the conversation at our branch, saying, ‘that could have been me at my work’, because that’s what we experience; we are a lot more at risk”.
Several branches got together and released a video condemning the police actions at Clapham Common, affirming their solidarity with the fight against gender-based violence and demanding better protections for hospitality workers. A survey they conducted found that 77% of hospitality workers had experienced harassment due to their gender. When asked if they would feel comfortable reporting incidents to either their managers or Police Scotland, respondents to the survey replied with a resounding “no”.
Through these conversations, they found a way of taking a whole-worker organising approach to sexual harassment and gender-based violence, addressing it both as a societal and trade-union issue. After all, workers are not just workers — they are whole people with intersecting interests and experiences of oppression.
Often, harassment is seen as a natural or inevitable occupational hazard for people who work in hospitality, when in fact, it is the product of particular working conditions. Caitlin explains that employers are not doing enough to protect workers. Part of the problem is that, in a system motivated by profit, there’s no immediate profit motive to protect workers from this kind of harassment.
One measure employers can put into place is a zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy, but Cailtin notes that most workplaces have no sexual harassment policy at all, never mind a zero-tolerance one. “Some businesses have things in place for customers, like Ask Angela, but if you actually look at what protections there are for the workers, there aren’t any”. It makes financial sense to make customers feel safe, but the same isn’t always true for employees. Without any policies to protect workers, Caitlin continues, “you will be groped, you will have comments made to you, you will be followed home. These are things that are happening to people that work in hospitality, but they aren’t being addressed.”
Another solution the workers are proposing is free transport home — unsociable hours mean that transport is often difficult and expensive, and this carries risks that continue after workers clock out. Beyond being followed home, angry customers (who have, for example, been cut off) sometimes stand outside and wait for staff to finish their shifts. “These are really dangerous situations, and employers have a responsibility and a duty of care, but for some reason, that duty of care stops as soon as it’s past 12 o’clock, and they don’t care how you get home”. Caitlin goes on to make the connection between this lack of care and profit explicit: “For me, my taxi fare home is one hour of my wages. However, it’s also one cocktail at my workplace. So that’s where you need to look at employers and say it’s greed and it’s neglect to not be transporting employees home.”
Caitlin notes that these problems are exacerbated by low union density. Indeed, the industry has consistently had some of the lowest union density in the UK for a long time. She says that, within a capitalist system, “if you’re not protected, then you will be exploited.” This doesn’t just come down to the morality of individual employers — the fact that more exploitation means higher profits is a systemic problem. Staff need to work collectively to demand better and protect each other to combat a system in which their personal safety is as precarious as their working conditions. She points out that many members don’t know their legal rights before they get active in the union, and they lack the confidence that acting collectively can provide, which contributes to employers’ ability to get away with doing less than the bare minimum.
These conversations are informing the branch’s demands and actions, including worker education programmes. They’re working with Ayrshire Women’s Hub to provide tailor-made training for hospitality workers about the issues they face in the industry and how to combat them. “You need to be able to identify sexual harassment, know where to report it, and what your rights are. People need to be given that information to be able to protect themselves and others,” Caitlin affirms. Beyond training, they’re looking at sexual harassment legislation in the workplace and hoping to influence how it is shaped. Unite Hospitality members have also put together a Fair Hospitality Charter, which includes an anti-sexual harassment policy and paid transportation past midnight, but also a list of demands that address the precarious conditions that allow gender-based violence and harassment to persist unchallenged.
The charter includes further demands for a living wage, equal pay for young workers, a minimum hour contract, consultation on rota changes, 100% of tips, and trade union access. While these demands may seem unrelated to the campaign, Caitlin is emphatic about the way that an absence of these can lead to an environment that fosters gender-based violence and harassment. “I think that’s one of the biggest things that prevents people being able to access their rights or being able to vocalise any concern. People in the industry are actually scared to stand up for themselves. Because if you are the one causing trouble, you just get taken off the rota, and that’s it”.
These precarious and exploitative conditions have also made COVID particularly difficult for the industry to weather; Caitlin says many workers have been afraid of punitive responses when they raise concerns about safety in their workplaces. For workplaces to be safe, workers have to have secure contracts and fair pay.
There have been many news stories recently claiming that there’s a labour shortage in hospitality in particular. Caitlin points out that, over the last sixteen months in Scotland, 58,000 hospitality workers lost their jobs, while many others were furloughed. She insists that this isn’t a case of a labour shortage but that “the industry, the way that it’s been built, and the way that we’ve had to experience it isn’t good enough”. Over the last 16 months, on top of the conditions endemic to the sector — low pay, irregular shifts, zero-hour contracts, and harassment from both managers and customers — workers have faced an additional litany of work-related difficulties, from mass redundancies and increased exposure to COVID-19 to a rise in workplace abuse. Caitlin makes it clear that any company that adhered to the demands of the charter would have no problem hiring. Many of those people will have moved on to other precarious industries, like call centres: “it’s a cycle — you move from one industry because of the exploitative nature of it. And then you move to another exploitative industry”.
The best way to end this cycle is to improve the working conditions in the industry, which will take a collective effort on behalf of unionised workers. Caitlin, full of determination, says that Unite Hospitality has grown by 11% in the last year and that it’s through the work of active union branches that improvements will take place. They’ve had active attendance at branch meetings, and they’ve recently been able to start picketing again. They teamed up with Better Than Zero’s Worker’s Reunion event, “going into retail and hospitality workplaces, giving them their ‘know your rights’ cards and having a conversation with people. That’s what we were missing for a year: being able to approach people and speak to them. That’s where we actually find out what’s happening”.
She states unequivocally, “it’s not enough to join a union; you have to be active in it. Unions have to do more to engage workers. You should be saying to people, not ‘why aren’t you doing that?’ but ‘what would you like to do?’” This approach is what has enabled her branch to come up with strategies to protect each other from harassment at work and their growth is evidence of its success.
With the end of furlough approaching in September, “there’s going to be another massive cliff edge of redundancies. We’ve seen it happen before. It’s going to happen again.” The solution to this precarity and the solution to gender-based violence at work is the same: “Get yourself protected, get your workplace organised”.