10:36, October 30 305 0 theguardian.com

2017-10-30 10:36:03
Stop letting powerful men silence victims with confidentiality agreements

Each day seemingly brings new revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s three decades of alleged sexual assaults, harassment and sleazy come-ons. As the victims continue to stream forward, we’re left wondering: how did he get away with it for so long?

One thing seems clear. Ultimately, if not for the bravery of his victims coming forward, Weinstein, who has denied allegations made against him, would have continued.

At least eight of the dozens of women he allegedly harassed not only had to endure the terror, confusion and humiliation as a consequence of Weinstein’s misconduct, but also were convinced to sign agreements drafted to protect Weinstein’s reputation by keeping them quiet. In consideration, they received hush money, but in the process they signed away important legal protections against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Silence is acquired. But at what cost? Silence begets more silence, giving predators the license to prey on new victims with little or no consequence. At the same time, accusers who speak up are ousted through settlements, often leaving their unknowing colleagues behind to become victims themselves.

This vicious cycle must stop.

When it comes to sexual assault and harassment, there should be no such thing as an open secret. Confidentiality agreements can play a legitimate role in business, protecting intellectual property, strategy and finances, but they should never be used to cover up illegal behavior like we’re seeing alleged in the Weinstein case. Moreover, employees should never be forced to sign away their rights. After all, what’s the point of strong labor laws if employees can’t take advantage of them?

Weinstein is certainly not the first powerful executive to prey on his employees. Nor is he the first to silence employees who threaten to reveal his incriminating and abusive behavior. As we’ve seen most recently with Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, non-disclosure agreements serve to institutionalize labor abuses at workplaces and allow employers to sweep allegations of wrongdoing under the rug.

For Weinstein and Fox News, both located in my Senate district, settlement payouts seem to have been the cost of doing business.

In response, I’m introducing legislation in New York to ensure alleged predators like Weinstein, Ailes and O’Reilly can no longer negotiate the silence of their victims. Under my legislation, which I carry with Queens Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, contracts that conceal abuse or waive an employee’s legal rights or remedies relating to a claim of discrimination, retaliation, or harassment would be deemed “unconscionable, void and unenforceable.”

As long as we allow the Harvey Weinsteins of the world to pay off victims in exchange for silence, we leave all employees vulnerable. Eliminating shady confidentiality clauses would help ensure fair labor standards, prevent workplace hazards and misconduct, and protect employee rights.

Settlement agreements with confidentiality clauses are another example of the power imbalance that fuels sexual harassment in the workplace. They serve predators and facilitators – and no one else.

In a system that too often vilifies victims and harbors powerful abusers at the expense of the safety and rights of employees, New York must declare once and for all that we won’t accept “open secrets” as the norm in any industry.

  • Senator Brad Hoylman is a Democrat representing Manhattan in the New York State Senate