Workplace bullying, precarious contracts, low pay, racism, transphobia, mental health crises; you don’t have to look far to find all of these issues in many workplaces up and down the UK. But where you might not expect to find them is in the sector fighting gender-based violence against women and girls.
In our sector, each workplace claims to be run by feminists and to be built on the principles of social justice and empowerment – but this is far from the truth. And that's why on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we – a group of workers from a range of specialist sexual violence and domestic violence organisations – launched the first ever trade union for our workplaces to challenge these injustices.
The VAWG and GBV Workers Union is a part of the independent trade union United Voices of the World (UVW), a grassroots, member-led trade union which supports workers traditionally seen as “unorganisable” by older and larger trade unions.
When we first came together to discuss the possibility of forming a union, it became clear we were facing some common issues. The most vital roles are being filled by workers on freelance contracts or agency workers, perniciously stripped of their holiday and sickness pay, pensions, supervision and peer support. Our so-called "inclusive" organisations are denying services to transgender and non-binary survivors of violence. Sex work is stigmatised to the point that sex workers are deterred from accessing the support they need.
Of course, being aware of their duties under the Equality Act, many bosses in our organisations take great steps to hide these matters from the public – but we see it happen. We see the way that services speak up (or not) for migrant survivors. We see it in the way the women's sector in Britain has accepted and implemented a two-tier system of domestic violence support set by the Home Office "hostile environment" policy that denies migrant women access to public funds and public services.
And it is not just survivors who are excluded: services are often run by middle-class white women with racist, classist and ableist hiring practices, replicating the deep inequalities of our society they say they are seeking to address.
Our sector prides itself on understanding the mechanisms of abuse and control, yet abusive hierarchies in its workplaces still go unchallenged. We work in a sector that replicates the dynamics of abuse that we spend our days fighting against. Every single one of us has talked of bullying from bosses and senior managers. Workers publicly shamed in offices, shouted at, humiliated and pitted against each other. One organisation talked of a pattern of bosses turning against individual members of staff, one by one, bullying workers so intensely that they felt they had no choice but to leave; this tactic is cheaper than making staff redundant. Another organisation talked of a “culture of fear”.
Meanwhile, austerity has decimated funding for therapy and advocacy services for women and girls. We find ourselves in a marketplace where organisations have to bid low for contracts and sign up to unrealistic targets. A lot of funding is now geared towards short-term, smaller projects, some of which are intended specifically to support marginalised survivors – and rightly so. But when those bids are won, the money is often being funnelled back into core services, leaving marginalised groups ignored.
We know that the current political climate requires services to constantly innovate or manipulate simply to survive, but we still believe it's right to call out these problems where we see them. As large-scale organisations continue to secure contract after contract, we are also seeing smaller “by and for” organisations lose out at the risk of total collapse. Earlier this year, London Black Women’s Project nearly lost contracts for several refuges providing support to black and minority survivors. As we see it, this in itself is a form of systemic racism and should be recognised as such.
Speaking out is not easy. Even in exercising our right to unionise (something a feminist sector should ostensibly support) we have been terrified to make our voices heard. We know we will be accused of disloyalty, of not caring about the impact this could have on the work we do, and the survivors we support.
That couldn’t be further from the truth: we are doing this because we care and because our rights and voices matter, as workers, as survivors and as people. Our organisations are built on the idea that speaking out about abuse is the way to affect change. The irony that we are being frightened into silence is not lost on us. We are breaking the silence and taking our power back.
We want an end to bullying, systemic racism, ableism and transphobia. We want trans-inclusive services, for both workers and survivors. We want an end to precarious contracts, low wages and anti-feminist policies. We want an end to the scarcity of financial resources that have caused a race to the bottom that leaves specialist services, especially those created by and for black and ethnic minority women and girls, struggling to survive. We want to be free to build creative, inclusive and transformative services for all survivors.
Most of all, we want our workers to join us and help us shape a movement built on solidarity and collective care. Because our work matters now more than ever.