This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
The President’s Club charity event detailed in yesterday's explosive Financial Times story has all the hallmarks of a Great British scandal: Tory ministers, bankers, and property developers drunk on power and vintage champagne at an exclusive dining society.
The staff members on that night were completely violated—"told to wear skimpy black outfits" by their agency, Artista, before being "groped, sexually harassed, and propositioned"—and the outcry is justified. But to really confront the exploitation of young women, we have to look a bit closer to home than all-male dinning clubs.
The guests who assaulted and harassed female staff were enabled by the power dynamics of precarious, zero-hours work. Powerful men believed they were acting with impunity, while women knew they risked losing their pay or their job if they complained.
Since the story broke, men have been scraping their jaws off the floor and being mortified all over social media. But most women who’ve worked in hospitality probably weren’t so horrified. Personally, I read the story with a sense of weary anger.
I worked intermittently at an agency like Artista in college. I was an abysmal waitress, very prone to smashing delicate champagne flutes, but I was hired because I was young, thin, and conventionally attractive.
The main booker would send emails advertising jobs, sometimes requesting specific physical types—"size 8-10 blondes for a very exclusive client." We were told to wear black high heels and "glamorous" makeup. Sometimes, we served drinks and food, but often we were booked simply for "hostessing"—hanging around decoratively and laughing at unfunny jokes.
I was generally paid around $140 for an eight-hour shift, almost double what I’d made at other catering agencies. So I found the cheapest pair of black heels, inexpertly applied my makeup, and suppressed groans when drunk men put their arm around my waist.
One night, after my shift was finished, a group of men I’d been serving came over and launched into some flashy coke-fueled banter. I politely said I was very tired and would like to be left alone. When they didn’t stop, I told them again, much less politely.
One of the guys was so outraged that he was no longer entitled to my time and energy that he screamed and spat in my face. His friend had to physically pull him away from me.
I went home, shaken. I got up at 5 AM for my next shift.
My experience was mundane. Harassment is rife in the industry: Almost nine in ten workers in the hospitality industry have been harassed at work, according to a recent survey by Unite. And a BBC investigation found last month that 43 percent of freelancers, gig economy workers, and zero-hours staff had experienced harassment at work—significantly higher than the 29 percent who were employed by a business.
It didn’t cross my mind to do anything about this incident. Who would I have told? We communicated only with the booker via email, and we had a different line manager for virtually every job. This was someone you met once or twice, who might have worked for the venue, but was just as likely to work for another outsourced company. Often, they were paid only slightly more than us, and, like us, they were undertrained and overworked. The informal, constantly changing nature of our working relationships meant there were no official channels to pursue grievances.
Even if I had been a full-time employee with the knowledge and confidence to make a complaint, my boss might have turned a blind eye. In 2013, the government of the United Kingdom repealed Section 40 of the Equality Act, which placed a legal duty on employers to protect their workers from abuse by third-party clients.
There was an ever-present sense of discipline hovering over you on every shift. People were dismissed for being five minutes late or sent home without pay because they hadn’t had their highlights done recently. We were constantly reminded that we were disposable. The agency would often book "reserves," who would get all dressed up on the off chance someone would drop out, or fail to toe the line, but were mostly sent home with just enough to cover their train fare.
After a few shifts, I quit and found another job. I had a home in London where I could live rent-free—a huge privilege that meant I could reject menial and unpleasant work. Another friend, recalling her time at a similar agency, wasn’t as lucky. "I dreaded every shift," she said. "But I couldn’t afford to be at school in London without it."
Too often, we think about sexual assault and harassment as the individual acts of individual men. If we find the perpetrators and cast them out of public life, this logic says, women and non-binary people will be safe.
But the problem is really a structural issue with our changing workplaces. Young women are denied the most basic safeguards by the increasingly casualized nature of low-paid work. We don’t just need to shut down sexist dinner clubs—we need to unionize and work collectively to ensure zero-hours workers have full employment rights.
The Presidents Club has announced it will close, society has exorcised its white-tie-wearing demons. But for every chastened banker with his name splashed all over today’s papers, there’s a young woman fearing for her job if she complains about the creeps at work tonight.
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