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Supermarkets could face harassment complaints over lads’ mags, say lawyers

Experts from six legal sets, including Matrix Chambers, where members include Cherie Booth QC, wife of the former prime minister Tony Blair, say that displaying publications “in workplaces, and/or requiring staff to handle them in the course of their jobs may amount to sex discrimination and sexual harassment contrary to the Equality Act 2010”.

Previously women have successfully argued they were discriminated against because of the display of explicit material in the workplace, but there has never been a publicised legal case against any major retailer.

A campaign launched by UK Feminista and the anti-objectification organisation Objectaims to put pressure on Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Asda and WHSmith to remove lads’ mags from their shelves.

If they fail to act, the lawyers threaten to bring a test case and will support employees uncomfortable with images of naked and near-naked women on magazines.

“For too long supermarkets have got off the hook, stocking lads’ mags in the face of widespread opposition, but this time we have the law on our side,” said Kat Banyard, founder of UK Feminista. “Every shop that sells lads’ mags – publications which are deeply harmful to women – are opening themselves up to legal action.”

The group says retail employees have told them they dislike handling the magazines but feel powerless to take up the issue with their employers.

“One woman said to us: ‘Those magazines don’t do women any favours, they are appalling and demeaning to women, but what can little old me do about it?’ Well, employees need to know they don’t need to put up with it any more.”

Sophie Bennett, campaigns officer for Object, said: “Lads’ mags dehumanise and objectify women, promoting harmful attitudes that underpin discrimination and violence against women and girls. Reducing women to sex objects sends out an incredibly dangerous message that women are constantly sexually available and displaying these publications in everyday spaces normalises this sexism.”

The lawyers’ letter supports the campaign and urges high-street retailers to immediately withdraw magazines and papers featuring explicit covers from their stores.

It says: “High-street retailers are exposing staff and, in some cases, customers to publications whose handling and display may breach equality legislation. Displaying lads’ mags and pornographic papers in mainstream shops results in the involuntary exposure of staff and, in some cases, customers to pornographic images.

“Every mainstream retailer which stocks lads’ mags is vulnerable to legal action by staff and, where those publications are visibly on display, by customers.”

There are examples of staff successfully suing employers in respect of exposure to pornographic material at work, if it “creates a hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for them”, said Anna Mazzola, an associate at Bindmans LLP.

“There has been a growing awareness that making employees handle these magazines, and displaying pornographic front covers in mainstream, not just adult, shops may not just be arguably ethically wrong but may fall foul of equalities legislation,” she said. “There is much more acceptance that both the state and private companies have a duty to ensure people are not discriminated against.”

The British Retail Consortium said: “Major retailers don’t need reminding of their responsibilities to staff and customers. BRC members don’t sell anything it isn’t legal to sell and they have long followed joint industry guidelines, as well as taking their own independent voluntary action, to make sure that front covers which may concern some people are displayed discreetly.

“This is an area where fixed definitions are difficult. Our members regard their stores as family-friendly environments which is why conversations with staff and customers about what they believe is appropriate will continue.”

The campaigners acknowledge that legal action could prove costly but argue that with fundraising and supportive legal help, a test case would be “feasible and practical”, said Banyard. “We are serious about this. Supermarkets need to lose the lads’ mags or they could end up in court.”

Past cases

2007 An employment tribunal awarded a woman damages for sex discrimination that she experienced while working for Sussex police. Male colleagues watched an X-rated television channel and displayed pornographic material in the workplace.

2008 An employment tribunal found that a woman had experienced sex discrimination while working at Network Rail, including colleagues victimising her by putting pornographic magazines in her in-tray and in the ladies’ toilets.

2008 Three male NHS staff were sacked after watching pornographic films on their work computers.