Protecting Low-Wage Workers and Women of Color
Empowered by the numerous women and men who have come forward with stories of sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, millions of people across the country have taken to social media to share their own stories of sexual assault and harassment using the hashtag #MeToo. For many, this campaign has acted as a viral support network by creating a space to discuss and work through shared trauma.
Widespread participation in the #MeToo campaign unveiled the breadth and severity of workplace harassment across the country, especially for women outside of the entertainment industry. Women of color and low-wage workers have been struggling to voice their own experiences with workplace violence for years without the public platform to be heard. Thankfully, the national conversation might finally be catching up to them.
Financial Power Silences Low-Wage Workers
Sexual harassment has been rampant throughout blue-collar workplaces, particularly the hotel industry, for decades. A recent story published in the Huffington Post details the struggles many housekeepers and low-wage migrant workers face working in hospitality, an industry where the phrase ‘the customer is always right’ takes precedence. Many workers feel trapped and unable to report incidents of violence and misconduct. A lack of job security means reporting workplace harassment of any kind can single you out as a troublemaker or difficult employee. It’s hard to advocate for yourself when your job is viewed as dispensable.
In a recent 2016 study of housekeepers and servers in the Chicago area, 58 percent of hotel workers and 77 percent of casino workers said they had been sexually harassment by a guest. 49 percent of hotel workers said they had experienced a guest answering the door naked or otherwise exposing himself. Even more disturbing, 56 percent of hotel workers who’d reported harassment said they didn’t feel safe on the job afterward.
For low-wage employees who experience incidents of workplace violence, the ability to anonymously report crime and safety concerns via text message could allow them to alert supervisors without fear of professional retaliation. If an incident required an immediate response, workers could even utilize their smartphones as a personal panic button to alert on-site management of an emergency. It’s important that safety solutions are created with all employees in mind, especially those who interact with customers frequently.
Maria Elena Durazo, a labor leader with the hospitality union Unite Here, has spent years advocating for housekeepers to be given handheld, wireless panic buttons that can alert hotel security when a worker feels threatened. While this is an important step in protecting hotel workers who are on the job, Durazo still thinks a fundamental problem surrounding workplace violence still needs to be addressed: the economic imbalance of power that exists between perpetrators and their victims. Durazo continues to say:
“We have to do something to equalize the power so that women really have the ability to speak up, without having to risk their livelihood. That goes for whether you’re a housekeeper or a food server or a big-time actor.”
A 2014 study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that 66% of female restaurant employees reported having been sexually harassed by managers, and over half say they experience it on at least a weekly basis. The study also found that over 50% of women in tipped occupations reported their dependence on tips has led to the acceptance of inappropriate behaviors that made them nervous or comfortable. Rampant sexual harassment of women, particularly to low-income workers, highlights the assertion of financial power and control by management and customers.
Intersectional Support is Non-Negotiable
PBS News Hour reporter Hari Sreenivasan recently sat down with Tarana Burke (pictured below), the woman behind the original MeToo campaign and creator of Just Be Inc., a nonprofit focused on giving resources and support to young women of color grappling with sexual trauma and harassment. When asked about the recent resurgence in the MeToo campaign, a movement Burke started almost 10 years ago, she seemed supportive of its recent growth. Burke was hopeful her movement’s emerging viral presence would shed light on the important work already being done to support survivors of sexual assault. The goal of the MeToo campaign, which remains unchanged today, is to empower folks who were ready to do the work of ending sexual violence.
As we move forward it’s important to acknowledge, respond to, and support all reports of sexual harassment – especially those made by women of color and low-wage workers. Burke has said before that sexual violence does not see race or class, but the response to it does. While it is crucial that we continue to support all survivors, even those who have not come forward with their story, we need to recognize the disparity in how we support white survivors versus survivors of color. Burke speaks to this directly during her interview, stating:
“That means when we see things like Harvey Weinstein having dozens and dozens of accusers, and the only person he responds to is Lupita Nyong’o and – the black women, that means something.
It also means that, when you have all of these powerful, rich, wealthy men who are white and attacking or are victimizing white women, its gets all this attention, but you have somebody like R. Kelly, who has been a known sexual predator for two decades, but his victims are all black girls.”
A 2010 study on sexual violence conducted by the Center for Disease Control found that 4 out of 5 women who said they had experienced attempted or a completed rape in their lifetime identified as a non-white woman of color. Women in marginalized communities are more likely to be victims of sexual assault and face many more hurdles when they come forward. It’s the responsibility of those who feel safe enough to tell their stories to recognize that not all those with stories feel empowered to come forward, and those who do are not awarded the same protections and support.
Like so many others, Burke argues that men need to start stepping up. Men need to be proactive. Men need to do research. Men created and are continually complicit in a workplace environment and power hierarchy that allows sexual harassment to persist. Asking women to be educators for the same violent structures that silence them is unfair. There are tons of resources that can help men understand patriarchy and privilege. From there, men need to start dismantling these structures, especially those structures that exist in the workplace. This responsibility should not fall on women.
Reform starts with ensuring that all employees, especially those who remain systematically silenced and unprotected, are able to work without fear for the safety. Tangible steps include investing in safety solutions that empower employees to report incidents of workplace violence and re-evaluating company reporting policies to work with, rather than against, employees.