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Employment

Should employers make sure staff get home safe? This local council thinks so

A Scottish council has taken a stand on the safety of staff on their way home from work at night, as debates around women’s safety are brought to the fore.

The murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, two young women who were preyed upon while walking home late at night, have raised the issue of male violence to the point of national crisis.

Yet many employers, particularly in hospitality, continue to require women to finish work late and then leave them to head home knowing full well they could be at risk of violence once they leave the premises.

One Scottish council is pushing for change. Hospitality venues in East Dunbartonshire ​will now have to ensure their employees can safely travel to and from work late at night, or risk losing their licence.

“This should set a precedent for every local authority in Scotland and the UK to follow,” a spokesperson from Unite Hospitality, which represents the rights of hospitality workers, told The Big Issue.

Unite Hospitality and other campaigners have lobbied for years for an initiative to force hospitality venues to put in measures that will keep staff safe on their commute home, such as free taxis after late shifts.

Police Scotland supported the move, agreeing that when issuing licences, “the criteria to be considered should assist in ensuring the safety and security of staff and customers.”

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The Government Equalities Office and minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, declined to comment.

Caitlin Lee, a hotel worker and a leading member of Unite Glasgow Hospitality was sexually assaulted after a Friday night shift in Glasgow while she searched for a taxi to take her home. She has waived her right to anonymity as a victim of sexual assault to raise awareness about the issue.

“I wouldn’t have been in that position had I not been at work,” she told The Big Issue. She said her employer, IHG Hotels, which owns chains including Holiday Inn and Crowne Plaza, previously had a policy of paying towards the taxi fare for workers on late night shifts but this was no longer in place.

In a statement sent to Lee after she reported the assault, and seen by The Big Issue, her employers responded that they “are not responsible for your health and safety once you leave your place of work”.

“We have a number of measures in place to support safe journeys to and from work for our colleagues, which include support for private transport and flexibility where colleagues seek to take public transport,” said a spokesperson from Kimpton Blythswood Square, the IHG-owned hotel where Lee works.

“We were saddened to hear of an incident involving one of our team members on their journey home following a work shift. This is now being investigated by the authorities, and our thoughts remain with them at this difficult time.”

“They expected me to come in and do the same shift again on the Saturday night after it happened,” Lee said, adding that she believed it “is absolutely the employer’s responsibility to make sure workers get home.”

“If it hadn’t happened to me that night it would have happened to someone else. It’s the inevitability of it happening to someone.”

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The measures in East Dunbartonshire form part of a broader conversation about violence perpetrated by men against women and how to stop it. Where responsibility has been traditionally placed on women to take measures to not make themselves a target, or even blaming women for being the victim of violent and sexual attacks, the onus is increasingly on men to take responsibility for the actions and attitudes of their peers.

“Increasing street lighting, personal safety alarms and CCTV may be well intentioned, but will do nothing to tackle the deep-seated attitudes that drive male violence and abuse against women and girls, neither will they support women to seek redress,” said Farah Nazeer, chief executive of Women’s Aid.

In the wake of Couzens’ arrest and sentencing, details emerged that he had been nicknamed “the rapist” by fellow police officers and exchanged misogynistic messages in a WhatsApp group with five other officers who are being investigated for gross misconduct.

Couzens was off duty when he approached Everard, who was walking home from a friend’s house in south London late at night on March 3. He used his standing as a police officer and knowledge of coronavirus laws as a pretext to place her in handcuffs. He then drove her to Kent where he raped and murdered her before burning her body in woodland.

Advice offered to women by the Met Police since his sentencing has been widely derided online as the force suggested women approached by lone police officers they do not trust could run “into a house,” “wave down a bus” or call the police on 999.

“Holding women and girls accountable for managing their safety rather than tackling the men who are threatening it will not eradicate violence against women and girls” continued Nazeer.  

The current law is ambiguous on the responsibilities of employers for the safety of staff outside of working hours. 

“There are several examples in case law which reinforce the idea that an employers’ duty of care extends beyond the workplace,” claim the union Unite Hospitality. 

Asked to clarify the current law, the Health and Safety Executive, the government agency responsible for workplace protections, told the Big Issue “we do not provide guidance on general travel to and from work.”

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