Unite Hospitality activist Amy Ferguson (personal capacity) talks about the need to organise hospitality workers and the need for Unions to take the demands and power of the #MeToo movement into workplaces.
This past year has been a year of revolt. We witnessed the #MeToo movement, the ‘This is not consent’ protests, and we also experienced the beginning of an era of young workers getting organised and fighting back against exploitative employers. McDonalds, TGI Fridays, Deliveroo, UberEats and Wetherspoons workers in Britain went on strike over unfair pay and conditions. McDonalds workers in the US, emboldened by the #MeToo movement, took historic strike action over the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Then, within months of that; Google workers staged an international walkout on the same issue.
The statistics that we know of, regarding sexual harassment in the workplace are horrifying. Over two thirds of women aged 18-24 have experienced it in work. In the US, 42% of workers in the fast food industry have experienced it. And in Britain, a Unite survey showed that 90% of hospitality workers, regardless of gender, have experienced 1 or more incidents of sexual harassment at work, with 86% having witnessed it happen to their workmates.
It is no surprise that those most prone to experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace are those in precarious sectors, such as hospitality/retail/food service/agency work etc. These are the sectors in which zero-hour contracts, minimum wage and extended probation periods are standard.
This precariousness is the norm, as bosses engage in a race to the bottom to protect profits and the growing wealth inequality evident in society today. This precarity makes it so difficult to speak out for fear that you’ll be noted as a liability and be pushed out of the job. Plus, low wages in the service related sectors means that many have a financial reliance upon tips. They have to endure being heckled or groped, just for the sake of an extra fiver to cover the cost of a taxi home, or even to be able to meet their rent or bill payments; Therefore it is crucial to illustrate that the struggle for better working conditions is central to concretely fighting for a genuine approach to tackling sexual harassment in the workplace.
Capitalism as a system relies upon this exploitation of the working class, by the ruling class to ensure its survival, to ensure its profits. But trade unions exist as a body to allow workers to stand together, to tip the balance of power between them and their employers. It is only by standing together with your workmates, by organising in a trade union that solid results can be won. Our bosses are organised, and they will act only to protect their profit margins, without thought for the consequences that that pushes on our back.
The problem we are facing in challenging this reality, is that many young workers are unorganised and missing the protection a trade union can provide. In 2017, only 2.9% of hospitality workers within the sector were members of a trade union. Young people today have lived through a period when the trade union movement has been on the retreat, with a decline from the industrial and political militancy of the past. Unbearable working conditions are beginning to push this new generation of workers to stand up and fight back with TGIs, McDonalds and Wetherspoons leading the way and inspiring others globally to do the same.
Unite Hospitality want to get a better picture of the statistics specifically in the North, so if you work in hospitality please fill in Unite’s Not On The Menu survey!
We witnessed the impact first hand in Belfast. Our Unite Hospitality branch held an open meeting following the strike, featuring strikers on the platform and it was over capacity. The room was packed to the brim with young and precarious workers, who wanted to know how they could fight back. This highlights the thirst that young, precarious and unorganised workers have for change; as well as the potential that fighting militant unions can have in building confidence in supporting workers to fight and win.
We have an opportunity now to rejuvenate our unions, to tell our exploiters that this is not good enough, that their time of living lives of luxury off our backs is up- we should not have to put up with sexual harassment in any form just to receive a pay packet that barely covers our rent and bills. We must organise and fight for working conditions that allow us financial stability and a meaningful work-life balance, to recognise that these demands are central to concretely taking up the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Unite Hospitality are currently waging a campaign on this issue; and encourage people to get involved and stand against the exploitative working conditions they are forced to endure. We want to build our activist base so that we can get the word out, as well as develop support and activist networks to push a strong fightback.