The General Pants Company considers it perfectly acceptable to make its staff declare a love for sex, essentially advertising their sexual availability in the blatant three-word statement. It gives customer service a whole new meaning.
Staff have been turned into walking billboards for their own objectification. We will take our pants off for General Pants.
The badges are part of the ‘Sex! & Fashion advertising campaign for General Pants and Sydney-based denim designers Ksubi. The campaign also features the large image of a semi-naked woman, with gaffer tape over her nipples, having her jeans unzipped from behind. It adorns the glass windows of a number of national shopping malls, including Westfield.
Why is it deemed unlawful sexual harassment if a man were to put up an image like this in his workplace, but acceptable for companies like General Pants to put up similar images in shopping malls (which, actually, are also workplaces)?
As a result of protests, the company has since placed a black strip containing the word ‘censored’ over the image. The huge banner label “SEX!” remains. It is a cynical move still inviting passers-by to read the image as sexualised.
As well as forcing female staff to work in this pornified environment, the “I love sex badges” provide further evidence of General Pants lack of care for the wellbeing and safety of its workers.
Young shop assistants told The Sunday Telegraph they were uneasy and uncomfortable wearing the badges.
One female employee told The Sunday Telegraph the badges were inappropriate. However, she had to wear them at the instruction of management. “It’s pretty degrading as a woman but there is nothing we can do,” she said.
Another employee said she felt “uncomfortable” wearing the badge because she found it “embarrassing’ and “demeaning”.
“I don’t think we should be encouraged to wear them,” she said. “It’s sending out the wrong message to our customers, who are generally young teenagers.”
According to the Courier Mail, Brisbane staff have turned down wearing the badges with one female staff member at the company’s CBD store saying they had been given the option of not wearing them.
But not wearing them is no protection against sexual harassment. The non-participating employees could be given a hard time for apparently not ‘liking sex’. They could be made fun of, asked if they are ‘hung up’, ‘prudish’ or ‘frigid’.
The badges create an intimidating divide between employees, segregating those who will and those who won’t. The wearers are likely to be viewed more favourable – and possibly receive special treatment – for cooperating with management.
Many employees are expected to be charming and engaging, to giggle with customers and give them a good experience. I understand that General Pants employees have a sales figure they have to meet every day. If a customer is abusive to them they can’t tell them where to go, because it could affect their budgets.
Getting and keeping the job is about pushing the image the company wants pushed. Refusing to flaunt yourself in a sexual way by wearing the ‘come-on’ badge could result in discrimination against employee who becomes a conscientious objector in the workplace.
This latest example brings to mind the time Westco ordered home Sarah Freeman, the 20-year-old assistant manager of the Bourke Street Melbourne store. Freeman refused to continue wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the slogan ‘Stop pretending you don’t want me’ after being harassed by a customer. The t-shirts had arrived at the store with instructions from operations manager Andrew Hart that “NO T-Shirt equals NO work.”
The then Victorian State Government accused clothing retailer Westco of breaching state and federal laws including the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and the Equal Opportunity Act by ordering young staff to wear “provocative and suggestive” t-shirts which left them vulnerable to sexual harassment.
“For me personally, it’s just so provocative. I mean, it’s tight, there’s no bigger size, the label is across my chest. I feel like I am open to harassment”, Freeman said at the time.
Then Women’s Affairs Minister Mary Delahunty sent a “scathing letter” to Westco chief executive Sandeep Kalra, accusing the company of using workers’ bodies to sell clothes and called on Westco to apologise. Wesco was forced to back down, a decision welcomed by Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner Pru Goward. “If you put slogans like that on a T-shirt, you can’t expect your staff not to be harassed,” she said.
It’s exactly the same in this case, but where are the same unequivocal and strong words of condemnation from Governments, Unions and anti-sex discrimination bodies to the General –Take-Off-Your-Pants Company?
A female employee quoted earlier seemed resigned to her fate, saying there was nothing she could do.
But there is.
An employee is required under law to provide a workplace free of risk to health and safety. When they fail to do this, the employee can instigate a complaint under workplace law.
According to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission,
“Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
Sexual harassment may include:
• staring or leering
• unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against you or unwelcome touching
• suggestive comments or jokes
• insults or taunts of a sexual nature
• intrusive questions or statements about your private life
• displaying posters, magazines or screen savers of a sexual nature
• sending sexually explicit emails or text messages
• inappropriate advances on social networking sites
• accessing sexually explicit internet sites
• requests for sex or repeated unwanted requests to go out on dates
• behaviour that may also be considered to be an offence under criminal law, such as physical assault, indecent exposure, sexual assault, stalking or obscene communications.”
So there are at least two grounds for a complaint against General Pants – first, employees have been exposed to harassment by being asked to wear the badges and work in an environment displaying the posters and semi-nude models.
Second, employees have been exposed to potential harassment.
Every company is required to have a policy on harassment and employees must have access to that policy and a channel for reporting harassment. So an employee needs to go through the internal channel first (provided this is easily accessed). If the company isn’t responding adequately to the complaint, the employee can then go to their state or Federal anti- discrimination board.
One of the most important things about harassment legislation is that the law doesn’t look at the intent of the person committing the alleged harassment, but at how the complainant felt about the incident. It doesn’t matter how General Pants and Ksubi intended the campaign – if an employee felt offended or harassed this is sufficient grounds for a complaint to be upheld against them. All the more so if they ignore complaints, which at this stage looks like they have.
“General Pants: selling objectification and harassment”. Put that on a badge.