Liz Truss vowed to stamp out workplace sexual harassment. Image: Gareth Milner / Flickr
Liz Truss vowed to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace a year ago, but women’s equality campaigners say there is still nothing to show for her plans.
The Government Equalities Office, under Tory leadership favourite Truss – who as well as being foreign secretary is also minister for women and equalities – announced a range of measures on the issue in July 2021. They included introducing a duty for employers to prevent sexual harassment and extending the time limit for bringing employment tribunals under the Equality Act from three months to six.
Truss said at the time: “Everyone should be able to live and work without the fear of encountering violence or harassment. That is why this government is committed to tackling sexual harassment in all its forms.”
She added: “We now have a real opportunity to transform the workplace and guarantee everyone an environment in which they can thrive and feel safe.”
However, when the Big Issue asked the department how the plans had progressed, it only reaffirmed the government’s commitment to delivering them.
“Liz Truss promised a year ago to make workplaces harassment-free zones, and no-one’s heard anything further since. And there’s much the government could do to ensure employers take this issue more seriously,” Unison women’s policy officer Josie Irwin told the Big Issue.
During her Tory leadership campaign Truss has announced that as prime minister her administration would criminalise street harassment, clamping down on aggressive and misogynistic behaviour.
“It is the responsibility of all political leaders, including us in Westminster and the mayor of London, to do more, to better protect women and girls from violence and abuse”, she said.
But in the absence of any ministerial action on combating sexual harassment at work, “women are likely to be rather sceptical of any claims that the streets are next on the government’s clean-up list,” said Irwin.
The government had launched a consultation on how best to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace three years ago. The July 2021 response announced a range of measures that also included plans to “introduce explicit protections from third-party harassment”.
The announcement was described as the first significant win in the wake of the #MeToo campaign around sexual assault and hailed as a victory by unions and women’s equality campaigners who had written to the government lobbying for new measures.
But a year later, a government spokesperson told The Big Issue that “the government remains committed to preventing sexual harassment in the workplace”. None of the commitments have yet materialised.
Close the Gap, a gender equality organisation that responded to the government’s consultation on preventing sexual harrasment at work, said the “delay represents a clear deprioritisation of women’s equality in the workplace”.
“Sexual harassment is endemic in our workplaces, but it’s so normalised that it’s routinely minimised or dismissed by employers. Close the Gap has welcomed the UK government’s commitment to introduce a prevention duty and reinstate protection from third party harassment, but we’re frustrated at the lack of progress,” said executive director Anna Ritchie Allan.
“Gender inequality means that all women are at risk of sexual harassment at work but evidence shows that younger women, and women in low-paid, insecure work are particularly at risk. We therefore need action on sexual harassment now, so that all women can feel safe at work.”
Unions had hoped the policy would be included in the Employment Bill, which would have included a host of measures to improve workers’ rights, but this seems to have been dropped.
“We need action from the government to force companies, especially those operating in the gig economy, to protect workers from sexual harassment,” Henry Chango, general secretary of the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which represents self-employed and gig economy workers, told the Big Issue.
“Workers in the gig-economy and in precarious employment are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. These workers fear speaking up because many types of precarious employment like zero-hour contracts mean that work can be easily withdrawn by an employer as retaliation for challenging abuses of power.”
The yoga teachers branch of the IWGB has recently launched a campaign to end endemic sexual harassment in the yoga industry. “Every yoga teacher has a raft of stories on sexual harassment, with solicitation and constant sexualisation of yoga teachers happening on a daily basis” says Femke Gow, an independent yoga teacher.
A bill to expand the duty of employers to protect their workers under the Equality Act 2010 is being taken forward as a private members bill by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, and is due to have its second reading in the Commons next month.
Around 150 Private Members’ Bills are brought to parliament each session, of which around seven succeed in becoming Acts of Parliament.
Liz Truss did not respond to a request for comment.