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Why Is Sexual Harassment So Prevalent In Hospitality?

More hospitality workers than ever are reporting workplace sexual harassment.

When Kate*, then 18-years-old, finished her final shift as a door girl at a Perth nightclub, she went to her manager's office at the back of the club to sign in her hours, as she did every night.

He was there. A much older man, he took his shirt off, blocked the door, and told her, "Tonight's your last night working here. If we're going to have sex at any point it would be now. There's a spot in this room where the cameras don't see."

She laughed, uncomfortable, and managed to squeeze her way around him and get out of there. She didn't say anything.

Maybe a year later, and Kate was working at another nightclub, less than 100 metres away. This time she was paired with a particular bouncer for several hours a night, someone who seemed to take pleasure in making her uncomfortable. He would stand really close to her, stare at her, ask her, "Why don't you like it?"

One day after work, when she'd been there about six months, he sent her a text: "We're going to have sex."

"I was like, 'Um, no, sorry, I'm not really interested'," Kate told ten daily. He sent her another text: "We will." Full stop.

She responded that he was making her feel uncomfortable, both in those messages and at work. It was the first time she'd really stood up for herself. "I think it was because I was away from the situation," she told ten daily. "I was home, I was safe."

The next day, she drove the 45 minutes to work. When she arrived, the manager came out and told her, "Oh, Kate, I'm sorry, I forgot to tell you. We don't need you anymore."

The new door girl was working that night.

"I can't help but think it's connected," she told ten daily. "Maybe in hindsight, I should have gone straight to the manager [about the harassment] instead of confronting the bouncer, but I don't think I said anything that was too confronting. I didn't know the proper process or procedure for dealing with sexual harassment. Nobody told me stuff like that."

Sexual harassment is rampant within the hospitality industry. While there's limited official data yet, a survey of more than 300 hospitality workers in Victoria conducted by United Voice found that 89 percent reported sexual harassment.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which is preparing a groundbreaking report on workplace sexual harassment across Australia, says that early data indicate there's been a "significant increase" across the board, with extensive anecdotal evidence coming from "particular industries".

Kate said she lost her job the day after telling a superior he was making her feel uncomfortable. Photo: Getty.

Shine Lawyers employment law expert Will Barsby told ten daily that industries like hospitality and retail are particularly rife with sexual harassment thanks to the large number of casual workers.

"The reason why these industries, particularly hospitality, are targeted the most is because you're dealing with a casualised workforce," he said.

"When you've got casual hours, you want to do everything right, you don't want to miss a shift, you want to get in on time, you don't want to make a complaint.

"There's this reluctance to speak up and enforce your rights."

The hospitality, retail and health care industries account for almost half of all casual workers in Australia, of which there are more than two million (or about 20 percent of the workforce).

Anecdotally, the harassment is coming from colleagues and managers, rather than customers who may have had too much to drink. (The AHRC's report, due mid 2019, should provide more concrete data.)

As Kate puts it, when you're serving drinks, you have a bar between you and the customer, and when you're working on the front door, you have a bouncer on hand. In other words, you're protected, except from the people working side-by-side with you.

(That's not to say that customers don't sexually harass or assault staff, which Kate has experienced first hand, but that anecdotally, it is not as common.)

"It's done by colleagues you consider your friends," she said. "They joke around with you, then next minute will turn around and harass you or assault you. It's this really weird thing, because you don't perceive them as a bad person."

Hospitality is largely made up of a casual workforce, who are less likely to speak up about sexual harassment. Photo: AAP.

Barsby says its a fear of losing work that prevents people from speaking up.

"When it comes to putting food on the table, unfortunately people are forced to forgo their rights and just knock through it, get paid, and move on."

At present, not many hospitality workers feel like harassment is taken seriously within the industry, with just 36 percent of people in the United Voice survey agreeing that it was. Almost half said the opposite, while 15 percent said they were unsure.

A 17-year-old hospo worker who had a customer tell her that he "would find me and rape me" said her boss only called the police because the customer walked out on a $200 bill.

"I was 17 and hid in the kitchen crying," she said. "They served him another time a few months later."

Kate, who no longer works in hospitality, says she thinks it's important that young people are educated around sexual harassment before they enter the workforce.

"One day somebody said to me, have you ever worked in a job where you haven't been sexually harassed," she said. "And I thought about it, and I thought about the definition of sexual harassment, and it kind of all hit me at once. I was like, oh my god, I haven't. I think it changed me, that question."

She says that after the incident with the bouncer, she wanted to take legal action and "fight the system".

"But it's scary," she said. "It was also a job I did two nights a week for $25 an hour. [Losing it] wasn't going to ruin my life."

*Not her real name.