New report highlights janitors’ and security officers’ unique vulnerability to sexual harassment

July 7, 2016

office at nightA new UC Berkeley report finds that janitors and security officers are uniquely vulnerable to sexual harassment because the structure of the property services industry puts them at risk, and conditions within the industry make it difficult for workers to report abuse. 

The report, “The Perfect Storm: How Supervisors Get Away with Sexually Harassing Workers Who Work Alone at Night,” published by the Labor Occupational Health Program (LOHP) in May, draws its findings from interviews with workers, employers, and staff of community-based organizations and government agencies. 

The report details how the property services industry is structured in a way that often allows supervisors to exert unchecked control over workers and isolates them at night when the likelihood that others will intervene or serve as witnesses is reduced. Moreover, these workers are usually undocumented, female, Latina immigrants who are less likely to report harassment due to the fear of retaliation, language barriers, or lack of familiarity with their rights and resources available to them. In addition, according to the report, layers of contracting and subcontracting can also decrease accountability of employers. Poorly trained managers and supervisors, inadequate or nonexistent sexual harassment policies, unfair investigations, and retaliatory threats contribute to a workplace culture that serves to embolden harassers. 

"This report focused on janitors, but it points to the vulnerable situation millions of workers are facing,” stated Alejandra Domenzain, the report’s co-author and coordinator of public programs at LOHP. “If you are a low-wage worker barely supporting yourself and your dependents, with limited job opportunities, terrified by the threat and reality of deportation, working in isolated conditions, and you are harassed or assaulted, what are your choices? You probably don’t know who can help you.” 

“Workers have suffered in silence long enough. Intervention is needed at multiple levels to prevent sexual harassment and abuse among this community of isolated and vulnerable workers,” said Helen Chen, co-author and coordinator of public programs at LOHP. “Structural changes are needed to prevent harassment and protect workers from retaliation. In addition, workers can take steps to protect themselves.” 

The report makes recommendations to prevent and address sexual harassment. Some of these interventions include:

  • Training that educates workers about sexual harassment policy and their rights 
  • Changing the dynamics of the workplace, such as encouraging work in pairs or teams, diversifying supervisory and managerial positions, and encouraging building owners to hold contractors accountable 
  • Improving the legal and regulatory system to expand protections and ensure justice for workers 
  • Expanding outreach and services for survivors. 

“We can train workers and managers on what they are supposed to do, but the problem will continue to fester as long as workers do not have the voice, knowledge, resources, and support to speak up and act," said Domenzain. 

Authors of the report include Helen Chen, Alejandra Domenzain, and LOHP Librarian Karen Andrews.

LOHP is a community outreach program of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. LOHP is committed to serving the needs of workers and communities most at risk—including low-wage workers, immigrant workers, youth, workers with disabilities, and communities of color—in California, nationally, and internationally.

By Jasmin M. Huynh

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