The #MeToo movement has brought needed attention to the trauma of sexual harassment and assault, and allowed for voices of survivors to be heard.
Some of the media focus has been on certain industries and celebrity. It is also important to shine a light on a different experience: that of low-wage workers.
Because of power dynamics in the workplace, along with race, gender, immigration status and other factors, low-wage workers are at higher risk for victimization. The very same factors that put them at higher risk also combine to create significant barriers to reporting harassment and assault.
If we want to eliminate sexual harassment and assault from the workplace, we need to recognize the experiences of low-wage workers and the power dynamics at play, implement policies to prevent assault from happening, and break down barriers to reporting harassment and assault when it does happen.
Workplace harassment and discrimination, including sexual harassment, is essentially about power, control and exclusion. It’s about someone exercising their power and control over another, less empowered person to establish dominance. It is important to note that both the harasser’s sense of his own power or of the relative lack of power of others does not develop in a vacuum, but is shaped and informed by a culture that sexually objectifies women, and reinforces class, race, gender and other power imbalances.
The most severe cases we have seen, where harassment leads to sexual assault, have happened to our immigrant clients who work in restaurants or in cleaning.
In the workplace, as in society generally, people lack power for a variety of different, layered reasons — let’s refer to this as the intersectionality of workplace power. A person who is a woman, a racial minority, an immigrant, has a disability, an LGBTQ+ individual, living in poverty, a young person, or person at the bottom of a hierarchy at work is more at risk, the more they fit into multiple categories.
At Community Legal Services (CLS), the most severe cases we have seen, where harassment leads to sexual assault, have happened to our immigrant clients who work in restaurants or in cleaning. It escalates to assault when the target fears repercussions from reporting, or does not know how to report, so the harasser faces no repercussions on the job. Predators know whom to target with a quick calculus of who is less likely to speak up, less likely to be believed if they do speak up, and less likely to take legal action afterward out of fear.
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Employers should want to know what’s happening in the workplace so they can fix it, and they need to think about how to encourage reporting. But consider that our entire system is paradoxically structured to require that the victimized person, chosen for harassment because of relative power differentials, must now take proactive steps in order to get redress. How can this disempowered person, now traumatized from the sexual harassment, possibly navigate the systems we have set up inside and outside the workplace?
Power dynamics continue to work against them at that point, complicated by other factors including trauma, the impact of which varies from person to person. One needs to report a hostile work environment before one has a legal claim, going up against those in charge on the job whose instinct may be to protect their friends and existing power structures.
If employers want to stop harassment and assault, they must adopt effective policies that encourage reporting.
Fear of losing the job, exacerbated by lack of savings for low-income people working paycheck to paycheck, and lack of safety net whatsoever for immigrant workers, who are disqualified from most public benefits, can present an incredible barrier to reporting harassment. Fear of immigration consequences can certainly reduce reporting by immigrants, as many of our clients are explicitly threatened with police or ICE action when they bring up other workplace issues.
Consider whether an undocumented kitchen worker who is unlawfully being paid no overtime and routinely mistreated by management, would trust that management would take her complaint of harassment seriously. Add a language barrier on top of that.
One thing we can try to do is to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place, before the harm occurs that can leave someone traumatized for life, or excluded from a career. Some of these things the law cannot fix, since back pay and monetary damages do not fix trauma.
To combat sexual harassment in restaurants, CLS and our partners have created the Coalition for Restaurant Safety and Health (CRSH) — a project that’s one of the first of its kind in the country. CRSH provides anti-harassment trainings free to restaurant employers and workers, so they can identify harassment and stop it before it starts. Through this process, we are empowering workers to speak up and take action to improve their workplaces.
If employers want to stop harassment and assault, they must adopt effective policies that encourage reporting. They must also provide training to all staff on what to do if they are harassed, how to intervene if they see it happening, and true prevention strategies, not just strategies for protecting themselves from liability. To test the effectiveness of their policies, they need to put themselves in the shoes of their lowest paid workers.
We should all put ourselves in the shoes of low-wage workers, recognizing power imbalances and supporting workers and organizations that are trying to make change. The #MeToo movement has done great and important things. Let’s just make sure we are also fighting for the people who need us the most.-30-
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