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U.K. Urged to Do More Against Bosses’ Demands on Heels and Tops

  • Law against discrimination not being enforced, lawmakers say
  • Report follows petition against discriminatory dress codes

The U.K. must do more to protect women from discriminatory workplace dress codes, a panel of lawmakers said, after more than 150,000 people signed a petition calling for it to be illegal to make employees wear high heels.

Female retail staff are being told to unbutton blouses more and wear short skirts to increase sales, and some workers face demands to wear ill-fitting high heels that cause disabling pain, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee said in a joint report with Parliament’s Petitions Committee published in London on Wednesday. While the demands are already illegal, the law is not being enforced, the panel said.

The lawmakers started an inquiry in response to a petition by Nicola Thorp, who was sent home without pay after refusing to wear high heels while working as a receptionist for Portico, a front-of-house agency that also required female staff to use and regularly re-apply make-up. The petition was backed by 152,420 people, forcing Parliament to consider it for debate.

“It’s not enough for the law to be clear in principle -- it must also work in practice,” Helen Jones, the chairwoman of the petitions committee, said in an e-mailed statement. “The government has said that the way that Nicola Thorp was treated by her employer is against the law, but that didn’t stop her being sent home from work without pay. It’s clear from the stories we’ve heard from members of the public that Nicola’s story is far from unique.”

Prime Minister Theresa May’s government should improve the effectiveness of the 2010 Equality Act so people are not forced to comply with outlawed dress codes, the panel said. Increased financial penalties should be considered, and employees should be made aware of their rights.

Awareness Campaign

“It is clear that many employees do not feel able to challenge the dress codes they are required to follow, even when they suspect that they may be unlawful,” the lawmakers said. “We therefore recommend that the government develop an awareness campaign to help workers to understand how they can make formal complaints and bring claims if they believe that they are subject to discriminatory treatment at work, including potentially discriminatory dress codes.”

Some women reported being required to carry food, drinks and stock up and down stairs while wearing heels, while others said they had to climb ladders, move heavy baggage and carry out emergency airplane evacuations, the panel said after studying hundreds of contributions to its website.

On average, women say they suffer pain from ill-fitting high heels within one hour, six minutes and 48 seconds of putting them on, the report said, citing evidence from the College of Podiatry. A fifth of respondents to a survey by the college said they were in pain after just 10 minutes.

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