The Most Vulnerable Workers Are The Women Who Most Lack Rights, Visibility And Support

Childcare, bar work, cleaning offices and apartment buildings, sex work, governments simply aren’t doing enough to protect women in unseen and socially undervalued jobs from workplace harassment.
Natali_Mis via Getty Images

Last week I watched the film Roma, the work of director Alfonso Cuaron drawing on his childhood memories of being looked after and raised by Libo, a domestic worker employed by his parents. The Oscar-winning film follows a maid called Cleo. As we glimpse Cleo’s life through the intimate lens of Cuaron’s camera, we experience her laughter, tears, hopes and tragedies.

This beautiful film moved me deeply, and got me thinking about the women I’ve met and heard from in the UK and globally who experience violence and harassment in their work places. These women usually exist below the radar because of their poverty and reliance on a steady income – often to support wider family or children.

The inequity of the domestic workplace – where wealthy employers make the rules and can often get away with acting above the law – is shocking. It means the very workplaces where women are most vulnerable and most hidden are the very ones going unregulated. As an example, eight out of 10 domestic workers in Latin America have been victims of workplace violence, according to research by CARE International, which is working to redress the balance and give these often-silenced victims a voice.

Domestic workers have reported violence, abuse and harassment from employers – yet there is no one to report it to. Isolated, women endure abuse in silence because they are absolutely dependant on the money. And it’s not just domestic work. Around the world, many of the most unseen and socially undervalued jobs are being carried out by the most vulnerable women, who care for children, work in late night bars, clean offices and apartment buildings or take on sex work.

And while Roma shows us the vulnerability of domestic workers because of their lack of visibility, a similar story is told by the recent Philip Green allegations and last year’s Harvey Weinstein scandal. Both highlight the abuse that powerful individuals can wreak in a more formal office or general workplace, even when professional women are ostensibly protected by a more business-like, regulated environment. It’s clear that, whatever the current UK or global laws are, governments simply aren’t doing enough to protect women victims of workplace harassment.

In 2018, the Parliamentary Women and Equalities Committee that I chair called on our government to strengthen their provisions to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace. These included introducing a mandatory duty on employers to protect workers from abuse; reinstating Section 40 on preventing third party harassment, and a recommendation to curb the use of Non-Disclosure Agreements to silence victims of harassment.

I want to see these laws a reality in the UK, and I have also been calling for stronger regulation globally. In June 2019 the ILO Convention could finally be agreed, giving us a critical opportunity to improve lives for women workers in the UK and all around the world. So that the legislation can’t be watered down in negotiations, the strongest most progressive Convention is needed to protect the world’s most vulnerable and least visible women.

Nevertheless, there is still a long way to go to safeguard women in the workplace. That’s why on 5 March we are campaigning to make all workplaces safe for women everywhere. We are encouraging supporters from across the UK to come to Parliament and lobby their MPs to say #ThisIsNotWorking, and call for an end to workplace harassment – once and for all.


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