New duty on UK employers to protect workers from sexual harassment
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The UK government plans to introduce a new duty on employers to protect all staff from workplace sexual harassment perpetrated by clients, customers, or colleagues.

The announcement coincides with a new poll that shows seven in 10 disabled women have been sexually harassed at work, with those aged 18 to 34 more likely (eight in ten) to have experienced inappropriate and unwelcome advances.

A 2016 survey from the TUC found that more than half (52%) of women had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. In a further survey in 2019, nearly seven in 10 (68%) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people reported being sexually harassed at work.

Now, the latest TUC survey, carried out by YouGov, found that around two in five (38%) disable women have experienced unwelcome sexual advances at work.

More than one-third (36%) report experiencing unwanted touching; one in five (18%) experienced sexual assault; and one in 25 (4%) experienced a serious sexual assault or rape at work. 

Two-thirds (67%) of disabled women said they did not report the harassment to their boss the last time it happened. Of these, the most common reason was that they did not believe they would be taken seriously (39%). 

Some said they were worried it would have a negative impact on their career or work relationships (30%). Other reasons included not thinking they would be believed (13%) or thinking they would be blamed if they reported the incident (11%). 

Of those who did report the most recent incident, more than half (53%) said it was not dealt with satisfactorily. 

From suggestive remarks, jokes about a colleague’s sex life, circulating pornography, to inappropriate touching, hugging, or kissing, demands for sexual favours, and even assault and rape, disabled women told the TUC that sexual harassment had a massive impact on their lives. 

Around one-third (34%) said their experiences had a negative impact on their mental health. More than one in five (21%) said it negatively affected their relationships with colleagues. And it caused one in eight (12%) to leave their job or employer entirely.  

Disabled women already face significant barriers getting into work and getting paid the same as non-disabled workers. TUC research from October 2020 found disabled women earned 36% less than non-disabled men and that the unemployment gap for disabled women, when compared to non-disabled men was 32.6 percentage points. 

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: “Four years on from the explosion of #MeToo on a global scale, employers still aren’t doing enough to make sure women are safe at work. It’s time for every employer to take responsibility for protecting their staff from sexual harassment.”

The TUC research comes as the government publishes its response on a consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace.

In it, the government has committed to four key duties, including the introduction of a mandatory duty on employers to protect their staff from sexual harassment at work and explicit protections for employees from harassment by third parties, such as customers or clients. 

The government is also considering extending employment tribunal time limits from three to six months for Equality Act cases.

Finally, the government will task the Equality and Human Rights Commission with developing a statutory code of practice on sexual harassment and harassment at work, setting out the steps that employers should take to prevent and respond to sexual harassment, and what can be considered in evidence when determining whether the duty has been breached. 

O’Grady said the news was “a victory for years of trade union campaigning – and for every single one of those survivors who shared their experiences of sexual harassment at work to bring about change”, adding that the new protections will help stamp out racist and homophobic abuse of workers, too.