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Violence and Harassment at Work

Volume 641: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2018

[David Hanson in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered violence and harassment at work.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hanson, and to be able to lead this very timely debate. It is timely because in just 12 days’ time the Minister, and indeed the Government, will have a unique opportunity to act in support of the unbelievable courage of thousands—probably millions—of women across the globe who have spoken out as part of the #MeToo campaign about sexual harassment that they have endured at work.

Such women include Zelda Perkins, here in the UK, who spoke out against sexual harassment perpetrated by Harvey Weinstein. That took raw courage—something that the Women and Equalities Committee has seen in so many of the submissions to our current inquiries on sexual harassment. In just 12 days’ time, on 28 May, the International Labour Organisation will meet in Geneva to discuss a new possible global law: an ILO convention on ending violence and harassment in the world of work. The convention is an opportunity to move from #MeToo to #TimesUp, and to ensure that the world of workers is better protected.

As a member of the International Labour Organisation, the UK has not only a right to be there, but a right to support that important work, and to speak out and urge others to do the same. I hope that today’s debate will give the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Kit Malthouse), who is my neighbour, the opportunity to update the House on the Government’s position and progress on this important issue. The Government have an immensely proud record of acting globally to tackle violence perpetrated against women around the world. This is yet another opportunity to take forward that clearly articulated strategy to take action against the form of violence that affects more women than any other: violence and harassment at work.

I thank CARE International—the Co-operative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere—for its support in preparing for today’s debate, and I highlight the incredible work that team does and their professional insight into how we can address these issues. The Women and Equalities Committee first considered the issue of sexual harassment back in 2016, shortly after we were established, and around the same time that the International Labour Organisation started its work on a worldwide convention. The ILO should be applauded. When other organisations were, frankly, still in denial about the most prevalent form of violence against women, the ILO was doing the necessary preparatory work for this month’s meeting.

Here in the UK, the prevalence of sexual harassment is in no doubt. More than three quarters of respondents to the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s recent survey reported experiencing sexual harassment at work, and in 2016 research by the TUC and the Everyday Sexism Project found that more than half of women in the UK had experienced sexual harassment at work—a figure that rises to two thirds for young women in particular. Since our initial work, the Women and Equalities Committee, which I chair, has launched two further inquiries into these issues: one on sexual harassment of women and girls in public places, and one on sexual harassment in the workplace. Our initial work was on sexual harassment in schools.

Thanks to the tenacity of CARE International and other organisations, we also have evidence on how these issues affect women similarly around the world—those women who make the clothes we wear, grow the food we eat or build the gadgets we depend on. We must ensure that the #MeToo movement does not go down in history as simply a flash in the pan, but as a significant milestone for the whole world on our path towards equality. To do that, we need to keep the pressure up and ensure that abuse and harassment is never part of anyone’s job description, wherever they live in the world. The ILO conference gives us another opportunity to show real leadership, by tackling an issue that affects many millions of people in the UK and worldwide: violence and harassment at work.

It has been interesting to see in the ILO’s work that tackling violence and harassment is not only a moral imperative; there is a very strong business case for it as well. In the same way that many UK businesses advocated for the supply chain reporting requirements in the Modern Slavery Act 2015, because they wanted all businesses to operate on a level playing field and for no one to have an advantage by ignoring abuses of people’s rights, many businesses realised that a strong international convention on ending violence and harassment at work can help to ensure that the conditions in their factories, farms, pack houses and workshops within their supply chains are both decent and justifiable to the public.

The UK Fashion and Textile Association has already publicly supported the potential new ILO convention, and committed to working with the British Retail Consortium and others to promote the convention among its members. That is very important support. Businesses know that it is increasingly important to get human rights issues correct, and it was clear from the CBI’s response to the Committee’s recent inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace that they understand that for the UK. I know that the CBI will support other employers’ associations taking an equally positive view, and I hope that it will continue to encourage others to see the merit in such a convention.

In addition, there has also been considerable research showing that harassment and violence at work has considerable costs for business. CARE International conducted research last year in Cambodian garment factories and found that more than 30% of the women who worked there had faced sexual harassment within the previous year while at work. Not only is that wholly despicable, but the research showed that such harassment directly leads to lower productivity, revenue loss and missed days of work, costing the industry many millions of pounds and dollars a year. Clearly, that cost gets added to the cost of the goods that end up in the shops.

What specifically are we asking the Minister—my hon. Friend and near neighbour—and his Department to do regarding the International Labour Conference? First, we want to see a convention, and we need to see it supported by a detailed recommendation. Only through that approach can we ensure that whatever is adopted will be legally and morally binding on many countries—including, of course, the UK.

Without the international legal status of a convention, we will frankly only be making a polite request to countries to improve how they tackle these issues. With a convention, countries have to be committed to taking steps to put in place an effective framework. They might drag their feet or attempt to ignore the problem, but a convention means that they have to answer on a regular basis to the International Labour Conference, and to the many millions of men and women in their own countries, whether via the workforce or the whole population in an election. If they are a country that exports to the UK, Europe or other nations, they can also be held to account by business and ultimately, and importantly, by our consumers.

It might appear to us in the UK that if there is a convention that addresses the issue in more formal workplaces, we will have dealt with the problem, but in many countries around the world only a tiny proportion of the workforce work in such formal workplaces. In India, for example, more than 80% of the female workforce are in the informal sector. In countries such as Nepal the figure rises to more than 95%. The convention needs to cover not only women who work in formal workplaces, but those who work outside those workplaces. I hope that the Minister can give some indication of the Government’s understanding of that necessity within the convention and say that they will be supporting that approach. In this country, an increasing number of workers are self-employed and I am sure that Members would not wish to see the mere lack of a traditional workplace used as an excuse to avoid responsibility for women being harassed by their de facto employers.

Similarly, we need a convention to be clear on the responsibility of companies down their international supply chains. That is an issue that the UK has a great deal of experience in driving through as a positive approach. The UK led on fighting modern slavery by making businesses aware of the importance of the supply chain in that approach. That is why I am hoping that when the Minister responds today he will be able to add some flavour of how the Government might be able to help other members of the International Labour Organisation to effectively put in place that sort of convention and give it maximum impact for women in their countries.

Even in the UK, where we have a relatively strong legal framework for dealing with harassment and violence, many women still suffer, so I ask the Minister to think about perhaps the one third of countries that have no such laws in place. Let us all be clear that a new convention can only be part of a much bigger picture for tackling the appalling treatment of people in the workplace. It is an essential part, but only part of an overall solution. We also need to see civil society and people in general challenge the norms that make it hard to speak out when one person suffers from, or sees, sexual harassment in the workplace. The #MeToo campaign has catalysed opinion and raised the issue to the top of not only the domestic agenda but the world agenda. The Minister and his Department have a real opportunity to take that catalyst for change and help turn it into lasting change for so many people around the world.

I mentioned CARE International research on the costs of harassment in Cambodia, but that has to be part of a wider campaign to help women understand what sexual harassment is and why they should no longer have to stand for it, and to help employers face up to and understand the problems it causes and how widespread it is. Our Select Committee heard evidence this morning from a number of different organisations that are working in the UK to try to make it clearer to people in the workplace what sexual harassment is. We have some of the best and most developed laws in the world on equality and employment protection. That the natural acceptance of sexual harassment is still part and parcel of the price of being employed in 2018 Britain is appalling. There is still a need for a great deal of work. How much greater are the issues in those countries that do not have those legal frameworks, do not have equality and human rights commissions, and do not have that very real sense of fairness and justice that we have in our country? It is an enormous issue and I am very pleased that the International Labour Organisation is so far ahead in finding a way of engaging Governments around the world in resolving this.

As parliamentarians, we all know that this year is an exceptionally important year for our Parliament, as the centenary of the introduction of women’s suffrage. Many of us were there when the statue of Millicent Fawcett was unveiled a couple of weeks ago—the first sculpture of a woman in Parliament Square. She is holding a banner that says, “Courage calls to courage everywhere”. It can never have been a better statement to make than as part of this debate today.

We need the Minister to call to courage everywhere when he or his officials attend the International Labour Conference at the end of this month, so that we can send a very strong message that the UK wants to protect women’s rights—not just here in the UK or when it comes to the campaigns that we are known for internationally, such as combating violence against women in areas of conflict or female genital mutilation, but also in ensuring that women no longer have to face violence and harassment in their work. We are expecting a truly effective global convention to emerge from the proceedings in Geneva that has the full weight of support from the UK Government behind it—not just from the Minister’s Department, but from the Foreign Office and beyond—and for this Government to continue to lead the way in extolling the rights of women to enjoy equality around the world, by ensuring that workplaces are safe for every woman, everywhere.

It is a great pleasure to serve in front of a fellow Liverpudlian, Mr Hanson, and, unusually, to appear in a debate where the majority of Members present are native Liverpudlians. It cannot happen that often, but perhaps it will happen more often in future. I also congratulate my neighbour and right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this important debate, and on the leadership that she has shown on the issue recently. She has invested an enormous amount of political capital and energy into driving the agenda and pushing it up the political priority list; she is to be commended for that.

The Government take this matter extremely seriously. We welcome the inquiries by the Women and Equalities Committee into sexual harassment in the workplace and in public places, and the International Labour Organisation’s initiative on ending violence and harassment in the world of work. We all have a responsibility to bring an end to inequality and injustice and to do that, we must work together across gender, social, political and national divides.

Sexual harassment can have a significant impact on those who are subjected to it. Nobody should be subjected to unwanted conduct of a sexual nature or be put in a compromising situation, and the law in the UK on harassment, sexual assault and rape is clear. Whether it is in the workplace, on the street, or part of domestic or sexual abuse, unwelcome advances that intimidate, degrade or humiliate are an abuse of power. The simple truth is that sexual harassment, in any situation, is unacceptable.

Workplace harassment is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010, which provides a remedy for harassment specifically in employment and other paid work, the provision of services, the exercise of public functions, the occupation, disposal or management of premises, education and associations such as private clubs. The Government believe that the criminal law also provides protection against violence and harassment for both men and women in the working environment and elsewhere. However, we keep the legislation under review to ensure it works as intended, and on all these matters we await with interest the outcome of the Select Committee inquiries.

On an international basis, we know that violence and harassment is a crucial barrier to women’s economic engagement and to gender equality worldwide. We know that if women had the same role in labour markets as men, up to an estimated $28 trillion, or 26%, could be added to global GDP in 2025—but we also know that it is not about the economic argument alone. Violence and harassment of women is an endemic human rights abuse, which prevents women from reaching their potential and living the life that they choose.

We have a responsibility to act as a global leader. We have strong laws on violence and harassment in the UK, but as my right hon. Friend said, many countries around the world do not have such protections. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development has been clear that we should be proud to put British values on this issue at the centre of our international development work. She has launched a global call to action on gender equality and has put women’s economic empowerment at the heart of her Department’s economic development strategy.

We are working to tackle violence against women and girls around the world. Through our “What Works to Prevent Violence Against Women and Girls” programme, we are working in 12 countries across Africa and Asia to demonstrate the economic cost of violence and to understand the most effective approaches to prevention. The programme will reach up to 100,000 people worldwide. In Bangladesh, it involves working with textile workers to address violence against female garment workers in four factories in Dhaka. It provides workplace training to male and female workers to raise awareness and build skills, and works with managements to develop workplace politics and systems to address violence.

We are putting the economic empowerment of women and girls at the heart of the Department for International Development’s economic development strategy, which was launched earlier this year. It focuses on trade as an engine for poverty reduction and investment in sectors that can unlock growth. All our economic development work will tackle gender discrimination and will deliver safer, more secure work with higher returns for women. We are having a real impact: between 2011 and 2015, we helped 36.4 million women gain access to financial services and helped 3 million women to improve their land and property rights across the world.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke rightly spoke about our stance at the ILO convention in Geneva later this year. The Government are committed to ending violence and harassment against workers worldwide. I assure her that we are fully engaged in discussions at the International Labour Organisation to develop measures that, if agreed, would provide an international legal framework in this area. My officials recently met CARE International, the CBI and the TUC to hear their views on the proposed measures. They will be attending the ILO conference in Geneva later this month for the first of two committee discussions on the proposed instrument.

The Government are already in a strong position to champion the need for international provision—particularly in the light of our leadership on modern slavery and gender-based violence initiatives. We recognise that there is a potential benefit in closing the gap in international law. In negotiating a new instrument, the UK will be looking for sufficient alignment with UK criminal and civil protections, on which the UK is already in a strong position. The definitions and scope of any instruments need to be reasonable and justifiable for all parties, and they must allow for practical implementation and enforcement. Our stance generally is constructive, and we are listening.

My hon. Friend the Minister is choosing his words very carefully in talking about the negotiations and discussions that will be going on towards the end of the month. He is talking about the development of an instrument, but in my remarks I clearly said it is important to have a convention, which would have far more weight than recommendations. Will the Government support a convention?

As I say, we are going to the conference with an open mind about what may come from it. We are generally supportive of the initiative on ending violence and harassment at work, which the ILO is undertaking. We need to be assured that what is produced is consistent with British practice and law, and is justifiable. Much of the devil of that work will be in the detail—particularly on some of the definitions. We definitely support an international push—we can assist it in ways other than just having an international initiative—to improve the situation of workers across the globe.

The UK is proud to be a global leader in efforts to eradicate violence against women and girls in all its forms, including through our leadership on efforts to eradicate modern slavery—one of the worst forms of abuse. I am proud that, in my time as deputy mayor for policing, I produced the first ever violence against women and girls strategy in a global capital city. That work was commended by the United Nations.

Everyone should be able to go to work without fear of violence or harassment, no matter who they are, where they work or what they do. The Government will continue to press for real progress through instruments such as the sustainable development framework and organisations such as the ILO, to help make this a reality worldwide.

Question put and agreed to.

I would normally commence the next debate in these circumstances, but unfortunately the Minister is not here, for obvious reasons—the debate starts at 4.30 pm. I therefore have to suspend the sitting until 4.30 pm.

Sitting suspended.