In 2017, The Saint published an article based on two months of interviews surrounding the prevalence of sexual harassment in the catering industry of St Andrews. Featuring interviews with eight students who worked in prominent establishments in town, the article revealed a culture of sexism and misogyny towards students, mostly female, alongside a pattern of mismanagement from senior staff. This was everything from ignoring complaints and blatant harassment, to missed paychecks. Often, the students described the managers laughing while witnessing the sexual harassment.
The problem came not only from the managers and employers but from the customers, leaving employees stuck with no option of reporting the abuse they endured. The situation was unbearable for most, who left their jobs for others or stopped working altogether in order to escape the cycle of harassment that was imposed through these establishments.
I interviewed Claire Baker, Scottish Labour MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife, who has been working on fair hospitality rights for St Andrews and Fife in a strive towards positive change for the students in this town, as well as people all over Scotland who work in the catering industry. Ms Baker currently supports Unite the Union’s campaign for fair hospitality, a charter of nine aims, one of which is an anti-sexual harassment policy. She sees this as a “positive way to approach issues within the sector”.
Unite the Union are, according to their website, a “democratic and campaigning union ”who take a hands-on approach to protecting workers’ rights. Ms. Baker told The Saint that the group even protest establishments with known history of bad behaviour. The union provides legal help with sexual harassment claims and legal issues, giving more people access to justice without the often debilitating influence of economic factors.
Ms Baker argues that “it is a good thing to be part of a union” in order to receive help with the legal side of things, as “it can be quite intimidating to take on these legal cases”. She describes the frequent difficulties faced by those working without union support when going up against a large establishment in order to testify maltreatment and harassment.
The mentality of “the better you treat your employees in a sector, you’ve got a better chance of holding on to your staff, which is better for business” is an underlying idea of the charter and of the promotion of the anti-sexual harassment policy. Fife council have agreed to adopt the charter, promoting it within the Chamber of Commerce and other establishments in the hope that more businesses will sign on to support the ideas and promote a better work environment. Ms Baker says they will “take an encouraging approach” to push people and businesses to achieve more of these charter goals.
It can be a “challenge” to deal with managers and employers who do not take sexual harassment seriously, therefore “it needs to be clear for the employee what the procedure is going forward” said Ms Baker. The implementation of the charter with its clear outline of anti-sexual harassment policy should be of help to people struggling with poor or harassing management.
However, Ms Baker is careful to emphasise that “it is the employers’ responsibility to have a robust sexual harassment procedure in place, and to take incidences seriously, and to make it easy for employees to report incidences, to not tolerate it within their businesses either from other employees or from customers”. She believes that the charter “accommodates” this responsibility.
St Andrews is a focal point for a survey on harassment, due to the fact that Ms Baker had, informally, “heard more negative stories about establishments and how they treat their staff” within St Andrews, as well knowing the town as an “area with a high student population and a lively nightlife”. Ms Baker recently visited the University to carry out a survey for students working in hospitality in order to gather their views on issues such as sexual harassment in order to find out “what the real issues in Fife are” and to find out the most effective way to a solution.
Ms. Baker believes that, for many students with part-time jobs, “the hospitality sector is a transitory job”.
“Sometimes people think ‘I am going to put up with this for just six months in the summer, or just when I am a student, but I am going to move out of this sector’, so maybe they accept poor conditions,” explained Ms Baker. She thinks that, despite this mentality, it is a case of employers needing to step up standards: “the [employees] also have a role in trying to improve the sector, but the responsibility is on the employers. It really is their responsibility to create a good workplace”. This was mentioned in The Saint’s previous article on this issue, where students pointed out the surplus of people willing to work and the ease in which employers can turn over staff who wish to leave due to harassment or poor working environments.
In order to combat this, Ms Baker suggested that “one way for people to be more comfortable in the workplace and speaking out about it is to know that it’s happened to others”, which was the aim of our previous article surrounding claims of sexual harassment within the catering industry in St. Andrews. Since The Saint’s article in 2017 revealing the level of sexual harassment within establishments, the worldwide #MeToo movement has given a platform to women and men to speak out about their experiences with harassment. Ms Baker agrees that “the #MeToo movement has been really positive for people in the public eye for speaking out and challenging the establishment”, and also that the effect of the visibility of the campaign was that “it will empower people and let them see what can change”.
However, she warns that, for many in the hospitality business, there is some caution: “It can be very difficult for some people to challenge a culture that is there. They could be scared of losing their job, they could be fearful of getting fewer hours, it could be their income is really important to them; they don’t have the same platform as someone who is famous to make this case”. Despite this worry, she hopes that the movement instills confidence in people who have experienced similar things and that the “debate around me too will reflect on the attitudes moving forward”. Ms Baker also asks whether the wider campaign “will make perpetrators reflect on their behaviour”, recognising the need for harassment to stop as much as for the reporting of it to be taken seriously.
While Ms Baker believes that sexual harassment cases can be pursued through employment law cases, she also made clear that, if any criminality is involved, it must be reported to the police.
Brexit has also caused concern for Ms. Baker in the development of anti-harassment schemes and the treatment of people within the catering industry. She claims that freedom of movement and changes in immigration will place a strain of Scotland’s tourism sector, namely the hospitality industry. However, such strains could push this sector to do better, as “if the tourism sector does want to grow, they are going to have to do more to encourage people to come and work in their sector and one way to do that is to create more secure jobs, better rates of pay and more valued staff. Some of the businesses do this and others don’t, they need to step up to their increased importance in this economy.”
Looking towards the future, MsBaker believes that dealing with this issue is important because “sexual harassment isn’t isolated to the work-place or to this sector, it happens across society. If you address the issue within society you address the issue within the workplace.” In order to combat the pattern of harassment across Scotland, there will be a need for “education within schools, communities, youth groups, families, ”but for now, the charter in place to protect people within the industry is a step in the right direction.
“We’re still to see how these changes translate to people’s everyday lived experiences in different workplaces.”
If you wish to get involved, the anonymous survey on your experiences within the hospitality industry can be found at: https://www.smartsurvey.co.uk/s/FairerHospitalitySurvey