26 January 2018
Your Legal Rights as an Agency Worker in Light of Presidents Club Dinner Scandal
The Presidents Club scandal which has unfolded over the last few days has put sexual harassment firmly back in the spotlight and exposed a worrying lack of protection for agency workers.
On the surface, the annual men-only dinner was an established event bringing the rich and powerful together to raise money for charity. An investigation by the Financial Times alleges a far seedier side.
Around 130 agency staff hired as ‘hostesses’ were reportedly groped, sexually harassed and propositioned by guests with each also required to sign a non-disclosure agreement before starting work.
While the Presidents Club has now closed this is evidence that a sexist and discriminatory culture still exists in some places and it is vital that society calls it out. It’s the same narrative in many of the sexual harassment cases I deal with – the imbalance of power between the victim who is typically junior; and a senior, well-paid individual who feels they are entitled to behave in this way.
Without seeing the contracts and communications exchanged between these woman and the Artista agency that employed them, it is not possible to advise on individual circumstances, but there are two important points to note.
Signing a non-disclosure agreement in advance of starting a job does not mean you’ve signed away your right to bring a discrimination or harassment claim. For a settlement agreement to be valid and binding, you must have taken legal advice first. Neither does it mean you can’t report what’s happened if it’s in the public interest, provided you follow UK whistleblowing laws which are there to protect those who disclose information about people breaking the law including discrimination and harassment.
Some of the conduct described is sickening and may also constitute a criminal offence. No non-disclosure agreement can stop an individual reporting a potential crime of which they or another person are a victim to the police.
Who is responsible for ensuring my safety as an agency worker?
Employers have a duty of care to take all reasonable steps to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of their staff, which can include agency workers. They also have a wider duty of care that applies not only to agency workers but also to visitors not to cause their physical or psychological injury in cases where there is a foreseeable risk. It is reasonable to say that this responsibility for ensuring a safe work environment means protection from bullying and harassment, whether caused by a colleague or a third party.
The uniform ‘requirements’ make me feel uncomfortable. Can I complain?
To treat a woman less favourably than a man constitutes unlawful direct discrimination, yet the Financial Times reports that hostesses were told to do their hair and makeup and wear skimpy black outfits and high heels. Men were not asked and would not have been asked to dress like this and it is perfectly reasonable not to want to dress in a sexually objectified way. Anything that violates your dignity or makes it an intimidating, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for you is sexual harassment and unlawful, so you are well within your rights to complain.
When and who should I report sexual harassment to and what action can I expect them to take?
Many workplaces and venues have a harassment policy setting out who you should report to in the first instance. If not, it is reasonable to report harassment to HR or a senior manager you trust. They should listen sensitively to your report and discuss options with you about what happens next. This might include an informal or formal investigation and resolution process, but your feelings and concerns should be taken into account.
Confide in a friend or family member if you are struggling with this so they can offer you support. If you do not feel able to raise the matter at work – for example, if HR are unsupportive or if the perpetrator is your manager – or if you are satisfied with the outcome, you can seek advice from a trade union representative or a lawyer.
Should I be concerned if I’m asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement?
It is worrying to hear that people are being asked to sign such agreements in these circumstances, and understandable if it makes them concerned about speaking out. The good news is that this will have no effect on your ability to pursue your rights before an employment tribunal, because unless you took legal advice first and asked your legal adviser to certify this, it cannot prevent you from bringing a claim. It also cannot prevent you from whistleblowing in the public interest, but it is sensible to take legal advice before doing so, including on correct procedure for doing so and the specific terms of your NDA.