Sexual harassment “outrageous”in hospitality

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A recent survey by the union United Voice found that 89 percent of hospitality workers had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Nikhar Budhadev reports.


Lilly Maree* from Kew finds that sexual harassment is a distressing part of the job.

The 21 year-old said a manager was making her feel uncomfortable by giving special allowances, flirting and lewd remarks while she was working.

Her colleague and friend also faced similar issues which she realized later on when she asked Lilly for help.

“I was beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable at work but I didn’t want to say anything because I really needed the hours to support myself and I didn’t want that to change,” she said.

A recent survey by the union United Voice found that 89 percent of hospitality workers had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.

Three quarters of those surveyed by United Voice said they had experienced unwanted sexual advances (73 per cent) and inappropriate touching (69 per cent). Almost nine of 10 reported sexist remarks (87 per cent), comments about their body (85 per cent) and sexual innuendo (84 per cent).

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins said the survey results are outrageous and horrifying, and are consistent with the evidence she has been hearing on her recent listening tour across the country.

“Particularly for young women, the experience of sexual harassment and sexual assault is a lot worse than the community expects and assumes,” she said.

Jenkins said the problem was worst in sectors where women dominated such as hospitality, and where work is often casual and insecure.

Though it is more common to hear accounts of female workers being sexually harassed, James*, a 24-year-old law student, said he was harassed by his female boss while working at a bar a few years ago.

“Once, after work, my manager was plying me with an excessive number of drinks all night,” James said. “I woke up in her bed the next morning. I was completely shocked and disorientated. I found my manager sleeping beside me. I quickly got dressed and left, in anxiety.”

The manager continued to send James inappropriate messages and was emotionally abusive and manipulative. He wanted to quit the job but he needed money so instead changed his shift to avoid her.

He said he could not speak about it to anyone at that workplace because he feared no one would believe him “as there is always an expectation that men are perpetrators”.

Lilly, a student at Swinburne, said she convinced herself to go along to a meeting with an area supervisor because she wanted to help her friend. However, it was getting to the point where she realized she had to also help herself.

“I was very disappointed because exactly what I thought would happen, happened,” Lilly said.

Lilly regrets speaking out and telling her manager about her concerns because he refused everything she claimed. She wished she had had tried to deal with it instead of raising her voice as it just made her life more difficult.

Eventually, she moved to a smaller store and her hours were halved.

With six weeks of semester left, Lily faced financial crisis after changing her job, which led her to seek a loan from her parents and stay at home.

Lilly believes incidents like sexual harassment do happen in fast-food venues and big-brand coffee shops, as well as in city and suburban cafes. The perpetrators include bosses, co-workers and customers.

Lilly said, “For thousands of us, sexual harassment is a regular part of our working lives. I would like to hope a new generation of males would understand these kinds of issues so this isn’t such a common issue. It’s got to stop.”

A recent media release by United Voice Victoria stated that hospitality workers say they face humiliating and sexually suggestive remarks from customers, management and co-workers on a daily basis, and are also being bullied, groped and threatened. One worker told of being drugged and raped by her employer. The survey gives a frightening snapshot of life for young women working in Australia’s hospitality industry.

Workers told United Voice that the culture in hospitality is one where sexual harassment is relentless and normalized. Only a third believed their employers took the issue seriously.

Jess Walsh, Victorian Secretary of United Voice, the hospitality union, said the survey results were an indictment on the hospitality industry. “Everyday young women are going to work feeling unsafe, in fear of being groped, humiliated or threatened by customers or managers,” she said.

“’The culture today in many venues seems to be ‘if you don’t like it you can leave’, and ‘If you speak up then don’t come back.’ Some employers put young workers’ safety and well-being well behind their customers’ desire to have another drink. It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.”

Walsh said young  workers’ safety needs to come first, second and third in the hospitality industry.

If you have been sexually harassed and want to make a complaint, contact the Human Rights Commission national information service on 1300 656 419 or (02) 9284 9888.

* Some names have been changed at the request of interviewees.