The Guardian has an instructive article on the rights of abused workers in the States. It is based on the current Strauss-Kahn case and shows the danger of unfair dismissal laws of the type Kate Wilkinson and John Key aspire to.
One very important fact has been largely absent from the coverage of the sexual assault case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and, until latterly, leading candidate to be the next president of France. The hotel housekeeper whom he allegedly assaulted was represented by a union.
The reason that this is an important part of the story is that it is likely that Strauss-Kahn’s alleged victim might not have felt confident enough to pursue the issue with either her supervisors or law enforcement agencies, if she had not been protected by a union contract. The vast majority of hotel workers in the United States, like most workers in the private sector, do not enjoy this protection.
This matters because under the law in the United States, an employer can fire a worker at any time for almost any reason. It is illegal for an employer to fire a worker for reporting a sexual assault. If any worker can prove that this is the reason they were fired, they would get their job back and probably back pay. (The penalties tend to be trivial, so the back pay is, unfortunately, not a joke.)
However, it is completely legal for an employer to fire a worker who reports a sexual assault for having been late to work last Tuesday or any other transgression. Since employers know the law, they don’t ever say that they are firing a worker for reporting a sexual assault. They might fire workers who report sexual assaults for other on-the-job failings, real or invented.
In this way, the United States stands out from most other wealthy countries. For example, all the countries of western Europe afford workers some measure of employment protection, where employers must give a reason for firing workers. Workers can contest their dismissal if they think the reason is not valid, unlike the United States where there is no recourse.
Imagine the situation of the hotel worker had she not been protected by a union contract. She is a young immigrant mother who needs this job to support her family. According to reports, she likely did not know Strauss-Kahn’s identity at the time she reported the assault, but she undoubtedly understood that the person staying in the $3,000-a-night suite was a wealthy and important person. In these circumstances, how likely would it be that she would make an issue of a sexual assault to her supervisors?