Feminist advocates and women workers fighting for protections on the ground outlined solutions to sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace and told their own stories during hearings and discussions Monday at a California Assembly Committee hearing held at the headquarters of the labor union Unite Here Local 11 in Los Angeles.
Unite Here Local 11 has fought for years to eliminate sexual violence in industries such as hospitality and food service, which have been notorious for allowing and perpetuating a culture that permits misconduct. “Speaking out isn’t a very easy option,” Annabelle Aguirre, an organizer with SEIU United Service Workers West, said during the discussion. “Everyday, when I came into work, I thought of my children in Guatemala, and I continued to work there for them.”
During the first of two panel discussions hosted as part of the informational hearing, women workers shared stories about the sexual violence and harassment hospitality and service employees face during work hours, and the retaliation that comes with reporting misconduct to their managers. When the panelists were asked by lawmakers if they felt safe at work, the women did say anything—but instead shook their heads in unison.
“Many women do not have a voice at all. When they experience something bad, they are afraid to speak out because they might be blamed,” Juana Melara, a hotel housekeeper, organizer and Time Magazine’s Person of the Year Silence Breaker, told attendees. “I urge you to stand with workers who are fighting to have a voice at their job.”
Sandra Pezqueda, a hotel dishwasher and another Silence Breaker, echoed the sentiment. “It was always he said-she said,” she explained, adding that the majority of workers in her establishment would not speak out because they were undocumented and desperately needed the work.
Later at the same hearing, experts testified on the urgency of finding and implementing solutions to workplace cultures that by and large allow and encourage harassment and abuse—and advancing economic justice initiatives to empower more women workers across sectors. Ms. Magazine Executive Editor Kathy Spillar, Attorney Monica Guizar, SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and Unite Here Vice President for Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity María Elena Durazo called on lawmakers and corporate leaders alike to eliminate harassment and end sex-based discrimination in the workplace.
During her testimony, Spillar dug into the ways discriminatory divisions in the workplace push women into low-wage roles with the highest risk of harassment and observed that while harassment in the workplace may not always be sexual in nature, it is always based on power dynamics. “Women are relegated to the lowest jobs in every sector,” she explained to the committee. “That just reinforces gender stereotypes and that women are just there to please their bosses and customers who have power over them. We’ve got to restructure our workplaces so that they are not segregated by gender.”
Spillar called for solutions to imbalances in power and for building cultures where harassment is unacceptable, suggesting increasing tenfold the methods of enforcement for protections against harassment in the workplace, including bystander intervention programs, and enshrining into law that retaliation is forbidden.
“I think strengthening mechanisms for enforcement is a key way to get to the bottom of this,” Spillar noted. “It’s a health and safety issue. Why can’t we have standards to address some of these issues that affect women and their health?”
The #MeToo movement and efforts like Time’s Up have made a splash in powerful Hollywood communities—but this week’s hearing shined a light on the importance of ensuring that low-wage women workers see the same momentum and results moving forward as women in the entertainment industry.
“As long as we are told our stories don’t matter when speaking up about sexual assault, this will continue to be hospitality culture,” Denira Palmer, a fine dining restaurant worker and member of Unite Here Local 11, declared during her testimony. “The only way to tackle this issue is through comprehensive legislation that will protect women from assault, harassment and retaliation when they come forward.”