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New research from Sheffield finds workers on precarious contracts most likely to experience sexual harassment

A Sheffield Hallam team found that zero-hours contracts, the sexualisation of service work and the erosion of workers rights were all to blame for an epidemic of abuse in the hospitality sector.

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Hospitality workers tied to precarious contracts are more likely to be the victim of sexual harassment than any other workers in the UK, according to new research from Sheffield Hallam University (SHU).

Workers on zero-hours contracts and in other forms of insecure employment in the sector are 60% more likely to report experiencing sexual harassment than the national average, with women twice as likely to report harassment than men.

Researchers found this was caused by a combination of factors, including the insecure nature of precarious contracts themselves, low levels of unionisation in the sector, the sexualisation of service work, and the demographics of hospitality workers.

The report found that the hospitality workforce is disproportionately young, female, from a minoritised background, on zero-hours contracts and on the lowest rates of pay.

“We’ve all seen the headlines over the last year about issues of sexual harassment in the fast food industry. Our research helps to explain why it's such a problem, not just in fast food, but across the hospitality sector,” said the report’s lead author Dr Bob Jeffery.

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Researchers found that women in the hospitality sector experienced more sexual harassment than any other workers.

Sheffield Hallam University.

“Part of the reason for this is the hospitality industry having the largest percentage of zero-hour contracts, which makes it too easy for perpetrators in positions of authority to cut the hours of those who try and speak out.”

Shift work

The SHU team interviewed more than 70 workers and trade union officers across South Yorkshire to build up a picture of sexual harassment in the sector, as well as carrying out reviews of existing research and literature.

Several of the women they spoke to had been harassed by their own manager or supervisor, who used their position of authority and responsibility for their shift patterns to harass them and control their working lives.

Dr Jeffery’s team found that the widespread use of zero-hours contracts, where an employee’s shift patterns are decided by their supervisor at short notice, was a significant factor. “Here we have examples where managers have used their control of a worker’s schedule to assist them in the commission of acts of sexual harassment, as well as to punish victim-survivors for speaking out,” they wrote in the report.

Isabella (not her real name), one of the interviewees who worked in the fast food sector, started experiencing harassment from her manager when she was just 17.

“He was around 26 at the time,” she told researchers. “He told me that he was younger than that – he told me that he was 21. And he would start asking me weird questions, about my personal life, about my boyfriend, like weird sexual questions.”

She continued: “He’d put himself on break at the same time as me, say these things to me. When I turned 18, I started to go out and go on nights out in town. He’d follow, he’d go, and he’d show his face, and just... it was getting really, really bad. And this was going on for a few years.”

Sexual culture

As well as experiencing abuse from managers and others in a position of power, workers also reported receiving sexual harassment from customers – with some saying that the culture of their particular business encouraged this behaviour.

“I didn’t like the attention that I was getting because of the outfit that I was wearing,” said Hannah (not her real name), who worked at a ‘theme bar’ where women were forced by management to wear revealing outfits as part of the job.

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Lead author of the report Dr Bob Jeffery said harassment was a problem "not just in fast food, but across the hospitality sector."

Sheffield Hallam University.

“Guys were groping at me and I just didn’t like it. I’m all for chat-up lines and people trying to flirt, but some of the stuff they were coming out with, it was just too crude. I’m guessing they thought I would accept that type of behaviour and language because of how I was dressed.”

Dr Jeffery’s team discovered low levels of reporting within the industry, and mostly poor outcomes for those who did report. Some of the workers interviewed said that after incidents occurred they had felt gaslit by managers who tried to downplay what had happened, and some reported being punished for speaking out.

Others found it difficult to raise complaints because the perpetrator was their own manager or supervisor, or because they worked for an agency where it wasn’t clear who they should speak to.

The team also found that victim-survivors of harassment were likely to be psychologically or physically harmed due to their experience, and significant numbers either left or lost their jobs as a result of these incidents. Women were more likely to be forced out of their jobs than men, and victims were more likely to leave than perpetrators.


One of the causes cited in the report is relatively low levels of unionisation: only 3-4% of workers in the hospitality sector are unionised, due to high staff turnover and coordinated attempts by big employers to block unionisation.

Researchers also cite the particular demographics of the sector. 35% of hospitality workers are aged 16 to 24 (compared to 11% across all sectors) and 17% are from a minoritised background (compared to 13% across all sectors).

54% of hospitality workers are women, and wage levels are the lowest of any sector in the UK, with 52% of workers being low paid (below the two-third median of all pay), compared to 15% of all workers. Across all sectors, more than one in three workers in the UK are affected by workplace sexual harassment annually.

Although existing research is “scant”, the team also found indications that LGBTQ+ workers are more likely to experience sexual harassment. In 2018, a TUC survey of over a thousand LGBTQ+ workers found that 68% had experienced sexual harassment at work.

A zero-tolerance approach

The detailed report concludes with an extensive list of recommendations for employers, trade unions, employment tribunals and for legislative reform.

These include setting up anonymous reporting routes to reduce the likelihood of retaliation from managers, more rights for workers in terms of shift predictability, more concerted efforts by unions to represent workers in the hospitality industry, and genuinely independent investigations into sexual harassment with the option of a female investigator.

Sarah Woolley, the general secretary of the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers' Union, welcomed the SHU report, writing that “every woman you know, work with or talk to will experience sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime – every single woman.”

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According to a government survey in 2020, LGBTQ+ workers are far more likely to experience sexual harassment than non-LGBTQ+ workers.

Sheffield Hallam University.

“To tackle workplace sexual harassment, we need clear policies in place that are upheld and actively worked on, not just collecting dust, coupled with a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment both in our workplaces and our trade unions,” she added.

“A real virtue of this research are the concrete recommendations for employers, politicians and unions to tackle sexual harassment at work. This includes an honest appraisal of the problems of misogyny in unions, but also some inspiring campaigns by workers and their allies to confront sexual harassment.”

“Nobody asks to be harassed. Survivors shouldn't feel shame, they haven’t done anything wrong. Responsibility lies firmly at the feet of the perpetrators and the organisations and cultures that enable their behaviour.”

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