As It Happens

Why low-wage workers are being left out of the sexual harassment conversation

Recent conversations about sexual harassment workplace focus exclusively on Hollywood and the news business. What about everyone else?
While the conversation on sexual harassment has revolved around actresses and journalist, women in low paying, less glamorous occupations have been 'completely left out of the discussion,' says Ehrenreich. (Bloomberg via Getty Images)

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Recent conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace focus too much on actresses and journalists, and not enough on waitresses and hotel workers, says writer and advocate Barbara Ehrenreich.

Amid the growing list of sexual harassment allegations against high-profile men in the news and entertainment industries, Ehrenreich wants the women in these less glamorous positions to be given a platform to speak about the struggles they face on a daily bases. 

Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and founder of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, spoke with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann about these women. Here is part of that conversation.

Ehrenreich experienced the environment of sexual harassment in low paying jobs while researching her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. (Submitted by Barbara Ehrenreich)

It seems that every day there are new allegations of sexual harassment against a high profile, powerful man. How much has changed for women in industries that aren't as glamorous?

I don't think anything has changed yet in any industries, except for those places where women's harassers were actually removed.

But completely left out of the discussion is the situation of relatively low-wage women in less glamorous occupations — health-care workers, housekeepers, other domestic workers, waitresses.

The food service industry is a cesspool of sexual harassment. These are not women who have lawyers they can turn to, to sue, or have friends in high places who can help them get attention.

Can you share some stories of women in those lines of work, the kind of behaviours they're having to deal with?

I can remember from my own experiences when I was working on my book, Nickel and Dimed. It sort of was normalized. People would say, "Oh, never go into the dry storage room with Ralph" or whomever. Or, "Watch out for such-and-such a supervisor."

But it was very hard to think about how you would protect yourself because sometimes you do have to be alone in a room with some man who you don't know and have no reason to trust.

The Women's March in Washington 'activated women all over the country,' Ehrenreich says. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

When you're talking about say, cleaners working in hotels, what is there to protect them?

That's a very vulnerable occupation, hotel housekeepers, because they go into the room. You know, they knock on the door, say housekeeping, they come in and then they may well be alone in a room with a male guest. And that's where unpleasant things can happen.

The most famous case of all  is the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former IMF head. But this is so pervasive that two cities now, New York and Seattle, are requiring that hotel housekeepers carry with them at all times a panic button that they can press when they perceive that they are going to need help.

So if it's gotten to the point where those cities have taken that kind of action, why don't we know more about this? Why aren't we hearing more of these stories?

One reason is the women seldom bring charges. And as far as I can understand, the big reason is not having the resources to do it.

I mean access to a lawyer and legal fees and so on. And also if you are paid only say $8 to $12 an hour, you probably would not be able to survive those three or four weeks it would take minimally to get a new job and a new paycheque. You've got to have some kind of buffer to do that. And if you're really low paid, you don't have that buffer.

Film exec Harvey Weinstein and U.S. President Donald Trump are two of the high-profile men who face allegations of sexual harassment and assault. ( Al Drago-Pool, Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images )

Is this a positive moment despite the painful stories we're hearing?

I think so. I really do. I mean we've had some remarkable things happen in the United States in the last year, one of which was the women's march. And that activated women all over the country.

Women went back to where they came from and started working with other women collectively in the age of Trump. Then when this came along, starting with Harvey Weinstein, there were just so many women willing and eager to stand up and talk about it.

And yet the president of the United States is himself accused by, I believe 13 women, and he is still in office and nothing seems to have come from that.

No not yet. No that's the most sickening aspect of this whole thing.

This interview transcript has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Barbara Ehrenreich. 


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