Legal briefing: sexual harassment at work

UNISON’s legal team looks at current attempts, through the Worker Protection Bill, to strengthen legal safeguards against workplace harassment, including sexual harassment

A poll of more than 1,000 women, published by the Trades Union Congress in May this year, has found that 3 in 5 (58%) reported experiencing sexual harassment, bullying or verbal abuse in the workplace.

This figure rose to almost two-thirds (62%) in women aged 25-34.

The TUC poll also found that in 2 out of 5 (39%) recent incidents, the perpetrator of the harassment was a third party rather than another member of staff. This is particularly true of younger women, with over half (52%) of polled women aged 18-34 saying they have experienced harassment from a third party, such as clients or customers, at work.

The poll was published against the backdrop of the Worker Protection Bill, a proposed amendment to the Equality Act 2010 that seeks to strengthen legal protections against workplace harassment, including sexual harassment.

Harassment under the Equality Act 2010

The Equality Act provides strong legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace. As it currently stands, section 26 of the act prohibits three types of harassment: harassment related to a protected characteristic; sexual harassment; and less favourable treatment for rejecting or submitting to conduct of a sexual nature.

Sexual harassment occurs where a person engages in unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, with the purpose or effect of either violating another person’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. Conduct constituting sexual harassment can include a wide range of behaviours, such as inappropriate comments or jokes, gestures, intrusive questions about a person’s private life, or unwelcome touching

Despite these existing protections – and as illustrated by the recent TUC poll – sexual harassment continues to be an issue in the workplace.

Following the publication of several high-profile reports and campaigns – including, notably, the Women and Equalities Select Committee’s 2018 inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace – the government undertook its own consultation in 2019. It found that 54% of participants had experienced harassment at work; 62% of those surveyed were women.

Participants were also consulted on what steps employers could take to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and asked for their views on extending protections to volunteers and interns, as well as extending time limits for bringing sexual harassment claims to employment tribunal.

In response to the consultation, the government stated its intention to introduce a duty requiring employers to prevent sexual harassment, as well as explicit protections from third-party harassment, both of which appeared as proposed amendments to the Equality Act in the Worker Protection Bill.

Worker Protection Bill

The Worker Protection Bill would strengthen legal protections for employees in England, Wales and Scotland by shifting the onus onto employers to address and prevent workplace harassment.

The bill proposed to introduce three key amendments to the Equality Act: re-introducing protection against harassment by third parties; imposing a proactive duty on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of employees in the workplace; and introducing an uplift in compensation of up to 25% in respect of breaches of the employer’s duty in successful claims for sexual harassment in employment tribunals.

However, on 14 July this year the House of Lords voted to remove clause 1 of the bill, which would have made employers liable for third party harassment, and amended clause 2 so that employers would only be required to take ‘reasonable steps’ to prevent harassment in the workplace, rather than ‘all reasonable steps’.

It is disappointing that the Lords have voted against two key amendments, significantly weakening the additional protections that the bill was intended to secure for workers. It remains to be seen what, if any, further amendments will be proposed as the bill makes its way through the report stage.

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