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Janitorial culture of abuse documented by Worker Institute

Experiences of workplace sexual assault and harassment are widespread in the janitorial industry, according to a new report by the ILR School’s Worker Institute, with women janitors more likely than men to experience unwanted sexual behavior, to be targeted by supervisors and to switch jobs due to harassing behavior.

Released Nov. 9, the report documents experiences of workplace sexual harassment in the California janitorial industry, as well as the conditions that hinder reporting and impose silence.

“So many workers and particularly those in the low-wage economy face sharply unequal power relations at work, which makes conditions ripe for exploitation and abuse,” said Zoe West, Worker Institute affiliate researcher, report co-author and Rhiza Collective co-founder.

Sweeping Change: Building Survivor and Worker Leadership to Confront Sexual Harassment in the Janitorial Industry” also highlights an innovative response developed by SEIU-USWW, the Maintenance Cooperation Trust Fund and other organizations, examining a worker-and-survivor-led peer education model that has been institutionalized through statewide legislation. 

Participatory research for the report was conducted by the Worker Institute at Cornell that included surveys of more than 700 janitorial workers; focus groups with 35 workers; a survey of 36 janitors who are promotoras (peer educators) and compadres (male allies); and in-depth interviews with four worker leaders. 

Silence around the issue is often enforced by the behavior of supervisors, coworkers and other actors, the report found. These behaviors conspire to create an environment in which those targeted report working in fear and grappling with trauma alone.

The research points to the value of a peer-education model in confronting the problem of sexual violence within this context, by finding that building worker leadership and cultivating relationships of trust in confronting sexual harassment can help break silence around the issue and shift workplace practices and culture. The report also draws broader lessons for taking on the problem of workplace sexual harassment and violence in other contexts.

On Nov. 9, the Worker Institute hosted a virtual report launch event featuring a conversation with janitor peer educators leading change in their workplaces. Simultaneously translated in English and Spanish, the event included a discussion of the findings, potential policy and organizational solutions, and testimony from survivors.

To read the full report and complete findings, click here.

Stephanie Olszewski is the communications specialist at the Worker Institute.

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Lindsey Knewstub