I was sexually harassed in the gig economy. I wish I’d known what I know now
Precarious workers must unionise against sexual harassment – for rights, education and solidarity
I am a survivor of sexual violence. In my early 20s, I was raped and beaten by a customer in my local pub. I was working full-time on minimum wage and had my drink spiked at a work social. When I told my manager, he said I could hide in the back office whenever the customer came in.
No other action was offered or taken. At the time, it didn’t even occur to me that something like this could be reported above my manager to my employer, or that my employer had a duty of care.
In my next job, as a charity worker, I experienced sexual harassment and discrimination from a senior manager that led to my being unfairly dismissed. This time, I utilised the formal structures of my workplace, seeking support from HR. But it became clear very early on that their priority was to protect management and the brand. My career in this sector swiftly came to an end, while the manager involved took a sideways step into another organisation.
When I was 30, I moved into the gig economy and began working as a freelance yoga instructor. Like many women, I was attracted by the prospect of self-employment and a job free of the inherent misogyny of traditional employment settings.
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However, it didn’t take long to recognise my enduring vulnerability to harassment. I was sexually assaulted by a celebrity teacher on a training course, and have been stalked on two separate occasions by customers.
While the mechanisms had been inadequate in more established and conventional work settings, suddenly there were no structures of any kind. When I was sexually harassed in such an environment, often in spaces that relied on trust, I was completely alone with nowhere to turn.
Sadly, my story is a common one.
More than half of women have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to the TUC’s 2016 report on the problem. Women, particularly young women and disabled women, as well as LGBTQ+ people and people of colour, are the most common targets of sexual harassment. Perpetrators are usually men of a higher status, and no industry or workplace is immune.
The TUC found that only 20% of women report this harassment to management, but almost nobody thought it was worth reporting it to their union rep: a shockingly low 1%.
In traditional work settings, protections against sexual harassment are often inadequate, but in the gig economy they are almost non-existent. Casual workers are even more vulnerable to sexual violence, and have nowhere to turn when it happens.
Unions have been historically slow to combat sexual harassment in the workplace, though the tide has recently begun to turn – following the TUC report mentioned above and follow-up campaign in 2019.
The gig economy also presents additional challenges to unions: workers are engaged in transient forms of work across many different spaces, and often work alone. But by the end of 2022, it’s estimated that a huge 7.25 million people will be working in the UK’s gig economy. And there are now more self-employed women than men.
More urgently than ever before, it is time for precarious workers to collectively organise around the issue of sexual violence.
Fighting sexual harassment in the yoga industry
In 2019, I was one of the co-founders of the UK’s first-ever union for yoga teachers, part of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), a union building worker power across precarious industries.
Most yoga teachers work freelance across multiple venues, and in its earliest incarnation the union’s focus was primarily on pay and precarity. But it soon became clear that sexual harrasment was the most urgent issue for many teachers. Currently, approximately 80% of the union’s casework relates to sexual violence.
Sexual harassment is endemic in the yoga industry. Shocking allegations of abuse have been reported in large, well-known, global schools such as Sivananda. In the absence of governing bodies and clear reporting structures, there’s no accountability. Complaints and concerns are often deflected, dismissed or belittled. There are countless stories that need to be told, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to do so – especially with the ever-present fear of being sued for libel.
Like many other industries in the gig-economy, this disregard for people’s safety is predicated on the hyper-individualism of the work. People in the gig economy without formal worker status are not covered by the same legal protections that workers are, and many people working in isolation do not know what other legal options and support are available to them. Survivors can face multifaceted challenges when reporting harassment to the police, while pursuing legal action alone comes with costs and risks that can act as further deterrents from holding employers or organisations to account.
With job precarity there is a greater fear of the potential losses to income. In the yoga world, the focus on our bodies during classes and commonplace practices of touching students for “instructive reasons” further complicate the issue, and that uncertainty is the ideal setting for exploitation and abuse.
This is why the Yoga Teachers Union has just launched a campaign against sexual violence. One of our key objectives is to educate. Many new union members don’t realise that sexual harassment can take so many forms, including things such as unwelcome touching, displaying sexually graphic images or being shown pornography – all surprisingly common within many yoga settings.
But education is only one aspect of what a union can do to help workers in the gig economy. It can also push for improved rights and better pay, both of which give workers the stability and security needed to report and challenge abuses of power. We can fight for recognition and collective consultation on all issues of workplace safety, giving workers a collective voice and putting us on a more equal footing with the people who hold power. And we can create a grassroots community of support and solidarity, so that none of us is ever made to feel alone.
The trade union movement is still at an early stage of organising workers against sexual violence in the gig economy. There is a need to develop new strategies alongside more traditional demands. The lessons are steep, the challenges great. But in coming together and organising, we are building strength, knowledge and hope for a workplace free from sexual harassment.
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