Eighteen months on from what was described as hospitality's #MeToo moment, the industry's workers remain uncertain about what protections they have against workplace harassment. Emma Lake speaks to members of the All-Party Parliamentary Group about what needs to be done
"Harrowing accounts" of harassment within hospitality workplaces were heard by a group of politicians, campaigners and industry figures on the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Sex Equality last week.
The APPG was gathering evidence ahead of a government consultation into legislation to protect employees.
In January 2018, the Financial Times' exposé of the Presidents Club Charity Dinner held at the Dorchester hotel, London, where young female hostesses were reportedly "groped, sexually harassed and propositioned" over the course of the evening, brought the vulnerabilities that can face hospitality workers into sharp relief.
For gender equality charity the Fawcett Society, which is working with the APPG, it was also a further example of why legislation is required to protect employees of all sectors from third-party harassment.
In December last year, the government said it would consult on a range of measures to tackle sexual harassment at work, including how to strengthen and clarify the law in relation to third-party harassment, for example, by a customer, client or hotel guest.
Legislation had previously been in place that made employers responsible for harassment suffered by their staff that had happened on two occasions or more, had been reported to the employer and where the employer had failed to take reasonable practical steps to prevent it. But this legislation, which had been included in Section 40 of the Equalities Act 2010, was repealed in 2013.
Fawcett Society chief executive Sam Smethers (pictured) said: "It is unacceptable that 18 months on from the shocking revelations of the Presidents Club scandal, women and girls still remain at risk from sexual harassment in the workplace. We know that women working in the hospitality industry are at particular risk, with many employers failing to protect their staff.
"At a recent meeting of the APPG, we heard harrowing accounts from women working in hospitality about the prevalence of harassment and the shocking lack of protection. There needs to be greater onus on employers to protect their staff. The government must urgently act to introduce a new statutory duty to prevent sexual harassment and bring back Section 40 of the Equality Act to deal with harassment from customers, clients and co-workers."
The APPG is gathering evidence to submit to the consultation and, as well as hearing from hospitality workers, co-chair Jess Phillips, MP for Birmingham Yardley, has opened a call for women from all sectors to share their stories. She told an earlier meeting of the APPG that those who contacted her were mostly young women working in low-pay, temporary or zero-hour roles in retail, hospitality or care work. She added that a group highlighted to her were women working in hotel rooms who may have poor English language skills or no settled immigration status.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, was in attendance at the APPG meeting last week. She told The Caterer: "Harassment in any form is an issue that hospitality takes very seriously. The sector is the third-largest employer in the UK, employing 3.2 million people. We are very keen to ensure we provide a positive and supportive working environment for them all.
"Harassment, intimidation or abuse in any form is unacceptable, either between team members, within the supply chain or from customers and guests. We are working with our members and the sector to provide safe spaces and promote a code of practice on dignity at work to give our teams the confidence to call out inappropriate behaviour and understand how it will be tackled."
Nicholls said that the repealing of Section 40 of the Equalities Act had left the rules around employers' responsibilities to protect staff from harassment, even from those outside an organisation, uncertain.
She explained: "While the law is clear about the duty of care employers have to protect their workers from discrimination or harassment in the workplace, the issue of third-party harassment remains unclear. It has become something of a grey area following changes in legislation. This can be a sensitive and subjective area and, in order to help employers navigate, what employers need is clarity around the definition of harassment, the due diligence steps they need to take and how to manage this. Clarity on the law would provide certainty for training to ensure understanding of duty of care and provide additional support to root out harassment.
"The potential for third-party harassment may be greater in the hospitality sector, but arguably the industry is more alert to situations where people feel uncomfortable and more inclined to intervene. Businesses work closely with the police and agency providers on modern slavery and exploitation to tackle these issues."
Sexual harassment and the law
Caroline Doran Millett, employment partner at Royds Withy King London
The unpalatable legal position is that there is no explicit liability on an employer for failing to prevent third-party harassment, such as customers or suppliers. This is a matter for Parliament to remedy.
Until 2013, employers were liable for failing to protect workers from third-party harassment, such as customers, under the Equality Act 2010.
This provision was repealed by the government in 2013, saying that those harassed by third parties still had redress from other areas of the law, including an employer's duty of care or health and safety provisions. This is theoretically correct, but the remaining legal protections for workers are either very limited in application or frankly useless in the typical hospitality scenario.
Unite, the Fawcett Society, CBI and Women and Equalities Select Committees are urging the government to remedy this and reintroduce meaningful protection and guidance against third-party harassment.
In the meantime, the hospitality industry can take steps to protect their staff and the reputation of their businesses:
Speak with staff to find out what types of harassment they are dealing with or concerned about. Are there heightened risks at weekends, late nights, private events, single-sex parties (such as hen or stag parties) or working solo? Are certain customers repeat offenders?
Consider preventative steps or solutions for the actual risks facing staff.
Display a public notice on your premises, on your website, booking emails, etc, that harassment of employees is unlawful and will not be tolerated.
Decide in advance the potential range of responses and empower managers to act.
Encourage employees to report any acts of harassment by third parties to enable the employer to take appropriate action.
Act on every complaint of harassment by a customer.
Have an anti-harassment policy, circulate it and train all staff on your policy.
To submit evidence to the Fawcett Society, visit: www.fawcettsociety.org.uk/ sexual-harassment-workplace