Workplace harassment: the UK government's fresh commitment to tackling violence and harassment

International Labour Organisation's ("ILO") Violence and Harassment Convention (the "Convention"), an international treaty which recognises the right to work free from violence and harassment. Governments that ratify the Convention are required to put in place necessary legal frameworks to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace – however, it is yet to be seen what measures UK government will implement, other than those previously outlined in its response to the consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace back in July 2021. The Convention will come into force in the UK on 7 March 2023.

What actions has the UK government outlined so far?

In its press release the Department for Work and Pensions ("DWP"), alongside The Rt Hon Thérèse Coffey MP stated that the UK "already has a robust legal framework in place consisting of both civil and criminal laws and health and safety law". The statement also reaffirmed the government's plans to introduce a new duty on employers requiring them to implement measures to prevent sexual harassment and to introduce explicit protections from third-party harassment.

Neither of these plans are new and were previously announced in the government's response to its consultation on sexual harassment in the workplace back in July 2021. Further, while the proposed new duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace is a good starting point, if it does not extend to other forms of violence and harassment, it may not go far enough to meet the requirements of the Convention or to tackle harassment in the workplace sufficiently.

It is also notable that the DWP's statement does not outline plans to introduce similar legislation to that recently passed in Scotland, making it a criminal offence to assault, abuse or threaten retail staff, across the rest of the UK.

What further measures might we see from the UK government?

A focus on collective consultation

In its statement, the DWP does also confirm that the UK government is supporting the Equality and Human Rights Commission ("EHRC") to create a statutory Code of Practice on sexual harassment and harassment in the workplace, including guidance on how employers can take effective action to protect those at risk.

Interestingly, the Convention includes collective consultation measures which are already in guidance published by the EHRC in January 2020, for example, the Convention requires governments to introduce laws and regulations which require employers to adopt and implement a workplace policy on violence and harassment and to identify hazards and assess the risks of violence, in consultation with its workers and their representatives. While the DWP's statement does not specifically address these collective consultation measures, they may well be picked up in the EHRC's Code of Practice when it is published – something which businesses should keep in mind.

Expansion of the meaning of "workplace"

The Convention applies to all violence and harassment in the "world of work". This includes not only workers' place of work, but also work-related trips or events, employer-provided accommodation and commuting. While we do not anticipate that the UK government would place responsibility on employers for violence or harassment which an employee suffers on their commute (unless, for example, the employer is providing the transport), the UK government may well set out steps for employers to take, for example, offering support to employees who are subject to unacceptable behaviour or harassment on their commutes and considering steps to reduce the risks to employees who may be travelling on their own late at night due to shift times.

Retailers Against Harassment

Our recent survey found that 61% of the retail workers had experienced some form of offensive behaviour while working for their current employer. Whether or not the UK government implements further legislation or guidance for employers about harassment in the workplace, it is clear that employees, particularly in the retail sector, face all forms of violence and harassment at work and that businesses need to work to prevent harassment in their workplaces. This is why we have launched the  Retailers Against Harassment Certification in conjunction with the Retail Trust, the UK's retail industry charity, which is designed to create safer working environments for staff.

Retailers who undergo the certification will be assessed across multiple competencies. Further, we will be reviewing the UK government's response to the ratification of the Convention closely in order to ensure businesses undergoing the certification are prepared for any future changes to legislation and guidance.

To find out more about the Retailers Against Harassment Certification please visit Retailers Against Harassment Certification | Foot Anstey