'Enough is enough' | Staff at huge UK union vote to strike over alleged failure to stamp out sexual harassment

Staff at huge UK union vote to strike over alleged failure to stamp out sexual harassment

Employees at one of the UK’s biggest trade unions look set to strike over claims that bosses have failed to act on pledges to stamp out sexism and harassment in the workplace.

GMB was ruled to be ‘institutionally sexist’ in a 2020 paper published by Karon Monaghan KC, who had been appointed to investigate reports of sexual harassment within the union.

Her report declared that "bullying, misogyny, cronyism, and sexual harassment were endemic" at GMB, which is the UK's third-largest trade union, with more than half a million members.

Monaghan added there was a "bully-boy atmosphere" and a "hostile environment" for women.

Union members elected a new general secretary, Gary Smith, in 2021. Upon assuming his role, Smith vowed to take action by implementing Monaghan’s recommendations, which included treating sexual harassment as a disciplinary offence and increasing the number of women in roles at all levels of the union.

But dozens of GMB employees have now backed industrial action, claiming that progress on these issues has not been made.

A GMB employee told the BBC: "Enough is enough.

“We were all promised after the Monaghan report that the horrendous culture of sexism and outright misogyny within GMB would be tackled, yet we've gone backwards.

"More and more of the staff are sharing their stories of harassment.

"We've therefore been left with no choice to ballot to take this action to force the hands of those in charge to bring back Karon Monaghan or another trusted TUC advisor to properly and crucially independently throw a light on what's happening within the union."

A spokesperson for Unite, a fellow trade union which represents some GMB workers, said: "We can confirm that our members within the GMB's North East, Yorkshire and Humber region have voted for industrial action following a ballot over allegations which include failure to implement the recommendations of the Monaghan Report and other concerns from staff including women."

A GMB Spokesperson said: "GMB has not received any notification or information from Unite about this.

"We have been involved in an ongoing dialogue with them on issues specific to the Yorkshire area, but these were put on hold as the Unite representative informed us they are on leave until 25th March.

"We are committed to listening to our staff and are available at any time for discussions to seek a suitable resolution to matters."

Getting to the root of sexual harassment in the workplace

Sexual harassment in the workplace is, unfortunately, an evergreen issue. The past year alone has seen numerous sexual harassment scandals in the business world.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) came under the microscope when a series of harassment and abuse scandals arose from employees at the organisation.

Whilst it was revealed that sexist comments were made towards Amanda Blanc, Aviva’s CEO, by the company’s shareholders – saying she was “not the man for the job” and should be “wearing trousers”.

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A new survey from the trade union Prospect, which surveyed 200 female employees at public sector defence organisations, found that 60% had faced sexual harassment whilst working there.

And just this month, a scathing report by Parliament's Treasury Committee accused HR departments of prioritising the reputation of businesses over the wellbeing of employees, particularly women facing sexism and harassment in the finance sector.

These are just a few examples of the increase in sexual misconduct cases within UK workplaces. But the likelihood is that there hasn’t been an uptick in these scenarios, but rather victims are more confident now than in the past to express their allegations.

Heightened scrutiny around sexual harassment – which has certainly been seen in society since the #MeToo Movement – has the power of treating the symptoms of sexism in the workplace, such as the use of misogynistic language.

What procedures should you follow?

The impending implementation of the Worker Protection Act, which is scheduled to take effect in October 2024, will place more responsibility on employers to ensure a safe workplace free from sexual misconduct.

In a situation where an allegation is expressed, employers should have a grievance and anti-bullying and harassment policy in place, as a minimum, to help them respond to complaints.

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Paul Kelly, Partner and Head of Employment law at Blacks Solicitors, previously commented on the issue of workplace harassment, saying: “These policies are key to ensure employees know what to do when they witness or experience sexual harassment in the workplace and managers know how to handle complaints. In terms of responding to complaints, the key is to carry out a thorough investigation. Employers should first start by talking to the employee who has reported the incident.

“Listen to their story, be empathetic towards them and keep an open mind. It’s important to be impartial and gather all the facts including when, what, where and who to assist, and then carry out further investigations to understand what has happened and if disciplinary action is necessary. Given the seriousness of the complaint, it is usually appropriate to treat the complaint as a grievance if the employee has not indicated this or alternatively ask the employee if they wish to raise a formal grievance and how they would like the complaint to be dealt with.”

Looking forward

With the introduction of the Workplace Protection Act looming, which will make employers more responsible for creating a safe work environment free from sexual assault, the need for businesses to have appropriate procedures in place in case of allegations becomes crucial. This way, potential perpetrators know what will happen if they behave inappropriately, and victims feel empowered to express a grievance.

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