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Not on the Menu – what the Presidents Club revealed about hospitality work and media attitudes

More than 8 in 10 hotel and hospitality workers have experienced unwanted touching at work. Trade unionists are organising a fight back – but the media just wants to portray women as passive victims.

In 2016 the TUC and Everyday Sexism Project collaborated on research into sexual harassment at work. “Still just a bit of banter?” found that 52% of all women who responded to their survey had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, with over a third being the subject of unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature and nearly a quarter experiencing unwanted touching. In hospitality, Unite union’s ongoing #NotOnTheMenu survey shows that 9/10 workers of all genders have experienced some form of sexual harassment, and 84% have experienced unwanted touching. 

We knew the figures in hospitality would be high – but we also knew that it would be harder for hospitality workers to speak about the abuse they face on a daily or nightly basis because of the nature of the trade. Hospitality is a £130bn industry, and it is propped up by a predominantly young and migrant workforce, many of whom are on zero hours contracts, often paid barely above the minimum wage. It is a sector where unions are essentially absent, with fewer than 5% of the hospitality workforce being a member of a union and fewer than 3% of workers covered by a collectively bargained agreement. Looked at another way, in the fourth largest industry in the UK under 3% of workers have a say in the terms and conditions they work under. Under 3% of workers have some formalised, negotiated input on what their jobs look like on a day to day basis – and, crucially, a say on what the policies and codes of conduct that are meant to protect them look like in their workplace.

In #NotOnTheMenu we asked workers if a policy existed, and only 22% were confident that it did. When workers have no say in what policies look like, or aren’t trained on how to apply them, then they might as well not exist. The result is the same – managers who have no clue how to respond when their staff have the courage to speak out about their experiences, and workers who don’t know what their rights are or what will happen to their complaint once it’s made. Combined, workers are left with a situation where their employers too often sit on the complaint in the hope that it will just goes away and have no recourse when they are not taken seriously. It’s therefore not surprising that, for those who do report harassment to their employer, far too often the outcome for them is that absolutely nothing happens or even that they are penalised in some way because, as one of our members was told: “it’s part of the job and you just have to toughen up and accept it.” No wonder nearly a fifth of respondents to our survey chose to *leave their job* rather than make a complaint.

This is one reason why Unite’s Fair Hospitality Charter calls for all hospitality establishments to adopt robust anti-sexual harassment policies. But this is not enough, because we cannot talk about sexual harassment in hospitality without also talking about the terms and conditions of employment in the industry. Workers must feel able to speak out about what happens to them in their workplaces, and to feel confident to do so they need to feel secure in their jobs - impossible in an industry rife with workers’ rights abuses and low levels of unionisation. We have heard from too many people who have made complaints only to find their hours have been cut the following week, or the agency they work for hasn’t offered them a job again, or they have been labelled as a trouble maker for having the temerity to assert their right to dignity at work.

How courageous, then, are those women who have spoken out about their experiences of sexual harassment in hospitality in the wake of #MeToo and latterly the FT’s expose on The Presidents’ Club. In an industry where doing so can cost you your job and can have a profound and prolonged negative impact on your mental health and your future employment prospects, women who speak out deserve our respect. As women in hospitality, they know better than anyone else what the problem looks like, how it feels – and what the solutions are.

A pity, then, that so much of the coverage we have seen that could have done so much to give these women the voice and the respect they deserve, has instead chosen to portray them as victims instead of survivors. As having no agency of their own, just waiting for a white knight solution to save them. Where we could have had women talking about answers, we have instead had women talking about the awfulness of their experiences: allowed to speak about how sad and terrible it all is, but not about what they as women workers can do about it.

The media response to the Presidents Club has reduced women to nothing more than fodder for column inches and clicks as their horrible experiences are trotted out, again, for the rest of us to comment and pass judgement on – with rarely any offer of support or follow up once their stories have served their purpose. This is an egregious irresponsibility, because the re-telling of sexual harassment can be extremely traumatic. How much more so if the women are left feeling no ownership or control over the ‘edited for clarity’ version of their own experience, and given no opportunity to talk about how it could have been, should have been different? Secondly, there is an implicit assumption here that it’s up to an unspecified Other to come up with the solutions *for* these women – that they’re not capable of doing so themselves – with all the implicit value judgements about their gender and their jobs that go along with that assumption.

Where we could have had empowerment, too often we have had disrespect. Hospitality workers deserve better.

#NotOnTheMenu will run until the end of February. Once the results are in, we will be working with (not for) hospitality workers to plan our next steps and decide how best to move forward with our collective agenda of securing dignity, respect and security at work. If you work in hospitality and you want to be part of that, then join your union today and help fight for the change we all so urgently need.

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