Stop Sexual Harassment and Assault on Public Transport

In July, I spoke at an event organised by Islington Labour Party women’s forum, called ‘Keeping women and girls safe in Islington’. There were various speakers from community organisations, the council and the police, plus workshops on domestic abuse, sexual harassment, hate crime, gangs and bullying. My job was to speak about harassment and violence against women on public transport.

I work on the Night Tube in the borough of Islington – but of course I made it clear that I was not speaking on behalf of Transport for London! I’m active in the RMT trade union, and am also Trade Union Officer of nearby Hackney South and Shoreditch Constituency Labour Party. This is an outline of what I said in my speech.

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. This takes various forms, one of the recent developments being ‘upskirting’: public transport is a favourite place to do this, because of people being crammed together. But even before that, there was inappropriate touching, flashing, and other behaviours up to out-and-out, full-on assault.

And now we have Night Tube. It’s a great job, so long as you find drunk people entertaining – which, let’s face it, they are. And mostly they’re 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 who think it is OK to grope the woman they get into a conversation with on the train. That I expected – I’m not saying I put up with it; we don’t have to put up with it just because we expect it – but 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, assuming that everyone will think they are together when they’re not. 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: they are not doing it opportunistically on their way home.

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, I’ve been a station supervisor for twenty of those years. My training on sexual violence and assault and harassment has come through the trade union movement, and it has come from being involved in collective struggles, not from anything that we have got from our employer.

Over those years, the situation with sexual harassment – on the underground, probably also on the other railways, probably also on the buses – does not seem to have got any better. I think it has probably 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. We can’t allow transport providers to keep on saying that it is fine for stations to be unstaffed late at night because there is CCTV. CCTV can only watch you being assaulted, it can’t stop you being assaulted.

When I first started working on London Underground, we still had guards on some of the lines. We don’t any more. And now, guards are being taken off the mainline services. 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. It’s only been quite recently that the guards have been taken off the London Overground services that go through this borough, that go through Highbury and Islington.

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, for example if you have been assaulted, 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 a great disappointment to me as a Labour Party member that this is happening under a Labour Mayor and a Labour GLA and a Labour Transport for London.

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. The objectionable word isn’t ‘pussy’, the objectionable word is ‘grab’.

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. I would like to see City Hall 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’. And they have all ticked ‘Yes’ to ‘Have you been verbally abused?’, and some of them have ticked ‘Yes’ to ‘Have you been physically assaulted?’ as well.

That’s what is happening to Night Tube staff. It also happens to staff who work during the day. (Night Tube is staffed by a specific set of workers who only work on Night Tube.) 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. So that’s why, when I was involved in the European Transport workers’ Federation – which brings together transport unions across Europe – 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. I also recommended the ITF – international transport trade union body – handbook on violence against women, which is brilliant.

The responses from the company as an employer aren’t always that great, so lots of women just don’t report it. 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’. One of women I met in the European campaign was a car park attendant and was sexually harassed by a customer, reported it to the management, and the management’s response was: ‘You should take it as a compliment.’

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’m going to end by making a proposal, from me to you: 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. [Applause]. I’ll take that as a Yes then!


An abridged version of this has been published as an article in Solidarity newspaper.

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