Concerns that workplace harassment duty could be shelved

  • Employment Law
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Unions and women’s groups have warned the Government not to abandon what they see as essential legislation on workplace sexual harassment after reports that ministers will allow the Worker Protection (Amendment of Equality Act 2010) Bill to fall, following objections from Conservative backbenchers.

The Bill would introduce a legal proactive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace and to protect staff from third-party harassment by clients and customers.

The proactive duty to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment would take employer obligations a step up from their current level. Employers can be vicariously liable for harassment of one of its employees by another of its employees, even if it did not know it was happening, if it can be shown that it did not take steps to prevent the harassment from happening. A successful defence would be helped by having a policy on harassment setting out a zero tolerance stance, open channels for concerns to be raised, training its managers on how to manage allegations, taking action against those who are found to have engaged in harassing behaviour etc.

Under the new plans, there would be a mechanism for employees to notify the Equality and Human Rights Commission of breaches or potential breaches of the preventative duty. If non-compliance was discovered, enforcement activity could include litigation.

In a joint letter to Business Secretary, Kemi Badenoch, campaigners — including the TUC, the Fawcett Society, Amnesty International, Times Up UK, Pregnant Then Screwed and a number of trade unions — warn that sexual harassment is “endemic” in the workplace.

Available on the TUC website, the letter states: “We know that half of working women will experience workplace sexual harassment. It is even higher for LGBT+, disabled, and Black women but these figures are likely just the tip of the iceberg as 79% of women do not report their experiences.”

The campaigners call on the Government to guarantee that the Bill and its new legal protections enter into law in this session of Parliament.

Fawcett Society Chief Executive, Jemima Olchawski, said: “We need to see a serious commitment from this Government to better protect women at work. Women deserve and demand better. It's time for this Government to deliver.”

The Bill has passed all of its House of Commons stages and was expected to pass unopposed through the House of Lords. However, it is currently stuck in the upper house due to the number of proposed amendments by Conservative peers.

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