Five ways to stop exploiting women in high risk workforces

Image of hospitality sector worker courtesy of Shutterstock

ETI member FLEX – Focus on Labour Exploitation – has asked us to share their latest guide that helps UK-based labour market enforcement agencies address the specific problems faced by women workers in “high-risk feminised labour sectors” such as cleaning, care, hospitality and domestic work. We think it also has lessons for companies.

When workers' rights organisation FLEX sent us their latest guide, Women in the workplace: a five-point plan to combat labour exploitation, ETI staff had just finished reading a Guardian long read on the abuse of women night-shift janitors in the US.

The US may be a different country, but the issues the Guardian uncovered, of women who were “isolated, unprotected and scared to speak out” can easily be found in the UK and elsewhere.

Specific workplace risks

As the FLEX guide states, women workers in highly feminised sectors are, “subject to specific workplace risks, discrimination and gender related abuse and violence.”

This presents challenges around reach, trust and detection for enforcement agencies seeking to uphold labour standards.

In order to combat these challenges, FLEX’s five principles (as agreed by experts from frontline organisations supporting women workers and including working group discussions and case studies) are:

  1. Understand the problem: Identify the characteristics of feminised labour sectors and common forms of abuse that can increase women workers’ risk of labour exploitation.
  2. Engage experts: Include a broad range of stakeholders and voices to make sure that the work of enforcement bodies is informed by women workers’ experiences.
  3. Make gender a strategic priority: Ensure gender forms part of the strategies of labour inspectorates, mainstreaming gender awareness across organisations.
  4. Establish sector-specific enforcement strategies and tools: Tailor enforcement strategies to meet the needs of women workers in different sectors, and adapt or develop tools for more gender-aware enforcement and prevention.
  5. Take a proactive approach: Reach out to the most at-risk workers in feminised sectors through proactive enforcement.

The UK context

This guide is timely because the powers and reach of the UK’s enforcement agencies are expanding.

FLEX points out that the new direction will see the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) in particular operating in highly feminised sectors for the first time.

As with other high-risk sectors such as construction and agriculture, areas such as cleaning, care, hospitality and domestic work have a high instance of outsourcing, informal employment arrangements, low pay and precarious work.

However, unlike agriculture and construction, the workforce in these sectors is predominantly female. This means an increased likelihood of bullying, intimidation and sexual abuse of women workers.

The statistics

In the commercial cleaning sector, almost 80% of the workforce is female. In the adult social care sector that figure is higher still at 82%, and in the hospitality sector it is 62%. According to the ILO, 61% of domestic workers in the UK are women.

Lessons for companies and institutions

Understanding such challenges, ETI believes, is just as important for companies and institutions wanting to ensure that workers in their direct workforce and supply chains, including those working within outsourced services, are well treated.

After all, why wait for enforcement agencies to make certain that your house is in order?

ETI trainer Stirling Smith concluded in a blog addressing caste discrimination in India, The most revolting blog post you will ever read, that wherever companies operate, the following principles around safeguarding vulnerable workers should apply: “exercise due diligence", "check out contracts" and "check your processes.”

Most importantly, he said, “talk to the workers.”

Download FLEX’s guide here.

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