Unison Urges Law Reform As 'One In 12 NHS Staff Sexually Harassed'

Unison Urges Law Reform As ‘One In 12 NHS Staff Sexually Harassed’

Hundreds of healthcare workers have been subjected to sexual harassment – including groping, upskirting and rape – by bosses, patients and colleagues, a study has found. 

Trade union Unison has today (June 20) published the findings of a survey of more than 8,400 healthcare staff – ranging from nurses to administrators – which reveals that more than one in 12 had suffered sexual harassment in the last two years.

Unwanted remarks, ‘banter’, and derogatory comments make up the most common experience but physical assaults were also reported, including three rapes and a case of a patient performing a sex act.

One anonymous staff member describes giving up their job after a nurse “made things awkward” and “uncomfortable”.

Another describes an incident in which an employee secretly filmed up another colleague’s skirt, a crime known as “upskirting”, before sending it to another team member by “accident”.

The report argues that poor disciplinary policies and the removal of legal protections have given rise to “a climate where sexual harassment is, at best, being ignored but, at worst, tolerated.”

‘Poor Procedures’ And The ‘Removal Of Legal Protections’

Commenting on the findings Christina McAnea, Unison’s assistant general secretary, said: “Many nurses, cleaners and administrative workers feel they have to put up with appalling behaviour as nothing will be done.

“This is generally because the perpetrators are in a position of power – or believe they are untouchable.

“The workplace which should be a harassment-free zone and employers who fail to act should be held to account.”

Unison is calling for the government to reinstate section 40 of the Equality Act 2010, a law which make makes employers liable for failing to act if their staff are harassed by a third party.

Based on a “three-strikes rule”, it opened up employers to legal action if they did to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment from happening again after it had been reported to them twice already. The harassment did not need to be by the same third party or be of the same nature.

However, it was repealed by the Government in October 2013 on the grounds that other laws gave staff similar protection – a claim disputed by Unison.

Unison is also calling on the NHS to develop a “gold standard” complaints procedure to boost employees’ confidence action will be taken and increase reporting.

Responding to the survey, NHS England’s chief nursing officer Ruth May said: “We have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to abuse, violence or harassment in the workplace and we will not stand for harassment or assault of any kind against NHS staff.

“Leaders of NHS organisations take these incidents seriously when they are reported, and we would want to provide the appropriate care and support to staff affected.”

Sexual Harassment And Human Rights


Image Credit: James Cridland/Flickr

Sexual harassment violates a person’s dignity – a fundamental human rights value – and can amount to an infringement of specific human rights, which the government has a duty to prevent and protect against through legislation and other means.

Sexual assault has been recognised as a violation of the right to private life, which encompasses a person’s physical and psychological integrity (Article 8 of the Human Rights Convention). Serious sexual assault can also infringe the right to be free from inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the Human Rights Convention).

Unwanted sexual touching and groping is a form of sexual harassment which will usually amount to sexual assault – a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003.

Sexual harassment is also a form of discrimination prohibited by the 2010 Equality Act.

The act defines it as “unwanted conduct of a sexual nature” which has the “purpose or effect of” violating someone’s dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading or offensive environment for them.

Sexual harassment at work can take many forms, from suggestive remarks, jokes and questions about a colleague’s sex life, and displaying or circulating pornography, to inappropriate touching, hugging or kissing, or sexual assault.

Featured Image: Pexels 

Help us increase understanding and support for human rights in the UK.

About the Author

Aaron Walawalkar

News and Digital Editor
Aaron is an NCTJ-accredited multimedia journalist focussing on human rights. His extensive reporting on rough sleeping in east London has been nominated for multiple awards. He has worked for regional and national newspapers and produced illustrations, infographics and videos for humanitarian organisation RedR UK. View all posts by Aaron Walawalkar.
Unison Urges Law Reform As ‘One In 12 NHS Staff Sexually Harassed’
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