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The union representing Australia’s airline cabin crew has called for immediate action after a survey found widespread sexual harassment of its members at the hands of co-workers and passengers.

The Transport Workers Union released the results of a survey of airline cabin crew showing 65 percent of respondents had experienced sexual harassment, with one in five crew reporting more than 10 such incidents. There were about 400 survey respondents, representing about 5 percent of Australia’s 8,000 cabin crew workers.

Four out of five cabin crew experienced sexual harassment from co-workers, while three out of five experienced it from passengers, the survey found.

The union claimed the incidents included serious sexual assault, workers being pinned down and assaulted, passengers exposing themselves to crew, workers being touched on their groins and buttocks, highly sexualized comments, and degrading comments targeted to crew because of their sexual orientation.

“These results are sad and shocking. They show that airlines are not taking the problem seriously and are not supporting workers when they are faced with what are daily assaults on them. It is clear that a culture exists at airlines to, at best, ignore the problem and, at worst, protect the perpetrators,” said the union’s National Secretary Michael Kaine in a statement.

The union has contacted survey respondents and is setting up an emergency working group of those who wish to get involved in developing solutions to the problem.

“Many people want to see this issue exposed and dealt with. It is not good enough for airlines to say they have policies in place to deal with sexual harassment,” Kaine added.

Airlines Claim Zero Tolerance

The survey results seem to have taken Australia’s major airlines by surprise, with both Qantas and Virgin Australia insisting they have “zero tolerance” policies.

A Qantas statement prepared for Skift said the transport union workers union represents a very small proportion of Qantas cabin crew.

The airline takes the safety of its people very seriously and Qantas has “clear processes for reporting and investigating workplace harassment claims, including whistleblower reporting that comes with additional protections to make it easier for people to come forward”, the statement added.

The union report slammed the airlines’ handling of complaints, with more than three-quarters of victims of harassment indicating that they were not satisfied with how it was handled when reported. The union alleges victims being dismissed and harassers being protected; victims forced to continue working with perpetrators after reporting an incident; and victims being forced to sit through mediation and take phone calls from perpetrators.

Qantas told Skift it will start a new program later this year that will ask crew what more the airline can do to deal with harassment and create a more inclusive culture.

Over the past year, the Qantas Group has dismissed 12 employees for workplace harassment offenses and the airline pointed out that passengers who harass anyone on board – either crew or fellow passengers – are handed over to the Australian Federal Police when they land and can be placed on the airline’s ‘no fly’ list.

Australia’s Sex Discrimination Act makes it illegal for a customer to sexually harass staff and compels employers to ensure staff are free from harassment.

Virgin Australia Group said it is concerned by the results of this survey. “The safety and well-being of our team members is our number one priority,” an airline spokesperson said.

“We have a zero tolerance of inappropriate behavior and we expect our team members to uphold the Virgin Australia Group values, behaviors, and Code of Conduct.

“Each Virgin Australia Group team member is required to participate in regular mandatory training of the Group Equal Employment Opportunity policy which covers sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying,” the company said in a statement.

An endemic problem?

According to Kaine, the survey showed “an endemic problem that is subjecting hundreds of men and women to the most horrendous treatment.”

“We know there are factors which exacerbate this problem for cabin crew: the hierarchical nature of their work environment, the over-nights that are part of their job and the strict dress codes which govern their appearance.”

The union is running a social media campaign to highlight its survey and what it says is a “widespread problem” under the hashtag #CabinCrewToo.

The campaign has emerged after the June launch of an independent national inquiry into sexual harassment in the workplace being conducted by the Australian Human Rights Commission. The 12-month investigation, carried out by the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, aims to “make sure we can help Australia lead the globe on finding new solutions for sexual harassment.”

Photo Credit: Qantas said it will start a new program later this year to create a more inclusive culture. Qantas