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British lawmakers want tougher laws against sexual harassment

Umberto Bacchi, Thomson Reuters Foundation  |  Published:  |  Modified:

British lawmakers called on Wednesday for tougher laws to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, including fines, saying the problem was endemic and not taken seriously enough.

A parliamentary committee called on the government to make it mandatory for employers to prevent harassment, with a code of practice detailing steps for companies to take, including to investigate all complaints and to support victims.

"It is utterly shameful that in 2018, unwanted sexual comments, touching, groping and assault are seen as an everyday occurrence and part of the culture in many workplaces," said Maria Miller (above), chairperson of the Women and Equalities Committee.

The report was the result of an inquiry launched in February as countless stories of misconduct emerged worldwide, amid the #MeToo campaign sparked by allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

In Britain, 40 percent of women and 18 percent of men were sexually harassed in the workplace, from catcalls to sexual assault, polling firm ComRes found last year.

Requirements should be stringent and breaches should carry substantial financial penalties, as is the case when it comes to preventing money-laundering and protecting personal data, the cross-party committee said.

"It's time to put the same emphasis on tackling sexual harassment," Miller said in a statement.

British women's rights group, the Fawcett Society, praised the proposed legal reforms, saying it was the only way to change workplace culture.

"We have to move from treating this issue as a problem for the individual woman to deal with, to one that the organisation owns," said the group's head, Sam Smethers.

Protection should be extended to interns, volunteers and workers who are harassed by clients, customers and contractors, the report added.

The committee also urged the government to regulate non-disclosure agreements, which may be used to silence victims, and to make it easier for employees to seek legal action.

"Employees who have a strong case against their employer must not be priced out of justice," the report said.

The Confederation of British Industry, an employers' group, welcomed the recommendations and said businesses were committed to stamping out sexual harassment.

"Firms understand they have a duty of care and are actively building inclusive workplaces where everyone feels safe, supported and able to challenge unacceptable behaviour," its chief UK policy director Matthew Fell said in a statement. 

- Thomson Reuters Foundation

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