With a recent reported rise in sexual assault and harassment on public transport, we publish an abridged version of a speech made by Janine Booth at an event organised by Islington Labour Party women’s forum.
I have worked on London Underground for twenty-one-and-a-half years. Throughout that time, sexual assault and harassment against women passengers and staff have been a constant presence. And now we have Night Tube. It’s a great job, and mostly passengers are great – mostly they’ve had a night out, had a great time, maybe had one too many, and we help them get home. However, a minority of (mostly male) passengers seem to think it is OK to put their arm round the woman member of staff who they are asking for directions, or think it is OK to grope the woman they get into a conversation with on the train.
Something that shocked even me is that there are men who deliberately go out on the Night Tube looking for women to assault. They look for passed-out, drunk women, they sit next to them on the Tube and grope them. We’ve had to deal with some quite serious assaults by men who have quite clearly only left their house and gone to the train station to do that.
In twenty-one-and-a-half years on London Underground, I have never received any specific training on assisting victims of sexual assault. I’ve worked on stations that whole time. My training on sexual violence and assault and harassment has come through the trade union movement. Over those years, the situation with sexual harassment has got worse, and I want us to think about some of the things that have made it worse.
Number one is staffing cuts. It is now harder to find a member of staff to assist you if you have been assaulted than it ever has been. CCTV and help points and apps may be helpful, but they are helpful when they are installed in addition to transport staff not instead of transport staff. CCTV can only watch you being assaulted, it can’t stop you being assaulted.
I hope you are all supporting RMT’s fight to retain the guards on those services where they still have them, because the presence of a guard is a deterrent to sexual harassment and assault, and the guard is someone to turn to if it does happen. London Underground had its level of station staffing cut by about five hundred over the last few years and had all its ticket offices closed.
Not only can you buy tickets at a ticket office, but you know where it is, so you know where to go to find someone if you need to. Whereas if there is only one person on the station and you don’t know where they are, you could be running round the whole station looking for them before you find them.
London Overground is now consulting on further station staffing cuts and further ticket office closures, and it is happening under a Labour Mayor. Of course, this is not all caused by transport policy, it is in the context of wider social issues as well.
Donald Trump famously boasted about grabbing pussies, and quite a lot of people said that was very vulgar, but the problem was not that it was vulgar but that it was violent. This is happening on public transport in the context of a massive cut in government funding to Transport for London.
The government is taking all its operating subsidy away from TfL, making it the only major urban transport system in the world that is expected to run without any public subsidy. City Hall could be doing a bit more to resist that and a bit less to carry it out, but the funding cut itself is coming from the government. It seems to have enough money for various projects of its own, but not enough to keep women safe while travelling on public transport.
As well as the passengers, there are the women staff to consider. Night Tube has been going nearly two years, and RMT is doing a survey of Night Tube station staff about various aspects of their working conditions. One of the questions is: ‘Have you been sexually harassed while on Night Tube duty?’ The options are ‘Yes, once’, ‘Yes, more than once’, or ‘No’. One hundred per cent of the women who have filled in that survey so far have ticked ‘Yes, more than once’. That’s what is happening to Night Tube staff.
It also happens to staff who work during the day. So sexual assault and harassment from passengers is an unfortunately regular thing. What about from other staff?
Most of our male colleagues treat us as equals, especially those who are involved in trade unionism, but for a minority it is a different matter, and it gets worse the greater the difference in rank. The lower rank a woman worker is, the more likely she is to be harassed by someone who is of a higher rank than her and therefore has power over her in the workplace hierarchy. So, you may get a woman Customer Service Assistant booking on for work and the manager she is booking on with may comment on her appearance and ask her if she was up late last night. A minority of blokes do this, but it happens, and it’s an abuse of power as well as being sexist.
As it is the most exploited, lowest-ranked women who are most vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment, that means that the people in the worst position are the cleaners. Our union has dealt with some terrible casework of women cleaners who have been serially harassed and sexually abused by their supervisors and managers and others who use their fear of them losing their job and sometimes their fear of being deported, their insecure immigration status, as an excuse to sexually harass them.
Again – this is probably my third and last swipe at Sadiq Khan – the fact that London Underground cleaning is still contracted out and cleaners are still paid awful wages, have no sick pay, have no holiday pay, no maternity pay above the barest legal minimum, and are still treated like this, under a Labour Mayor, I think is pretty shameful. He could change that and bring cleaning back in-house and put them on the same terms as the rest of us.
There is, unfortunately, still an idea that sexual harassment and assault are part of the job, that if you’re going to do a bloke’s job, like working on a railway, then you need to accept what comes with it.
When I was involved in the European Transport workers’ Federation – a couple of years ago, we ran a campaign called ‘It’s Not Part of the Job’, and we translated it into different languages and circulated publicity across Europe. Employers have not always taken any complaints seriously. It’s almost like we’ve internalised it as part of our job, and think that if we did report it, nothing would happen anyway. One of my friends reported a sexual assault by a drunk bloke and the manager said “Well, drunk blokes behave like that”.
We’ve also got women who work in public transport who have domestic violence issues, and that overflows into the workplace. Our union asked London Underground to adopt a domestic violence policy a couple of years ago and the company refused on the basis that ‘domestic violence is a private issue and nothing to do with us’. We’re going to try to press that again because that just isn’t acceptable.
I think we should have a joint worker and passenger campaign against sexual harassment and violence on public transport. And I think the people to lead this are trade union women and Labour women, because that’s what we are here for – a rank-and-file-led, working-class movement, defending the rights of working people to go to work and go home again without being harassed or assaulted, and to go about your daily business on public transport without being harassed and assaulted. And while the right wing try to divide public sector workers and public service users against each other, I think this is an opportunity for us to come together and for workers and service users to unite.