#YesAllWomen: 'It is Hard to Be in the Workplace.'
I invited women to email me their experiences of sexual assault and harassment. This is one of those stories.
In the late 1980s, my first job was in a non-traditional field. I and others met with the then Minister for Labour Bertie Ahern. We did a press day and our job was to involve women in work that was not generally thought of as "women's work". I was in the building industry and contracted by the Commissioners For Public Works in the South of Ireland.
I was contracted in trade, which means that your pay scale increases as you go through your apprenticeship. I did my first year City & Guilds with Fás and then got the OPW job. The resulting qualification would make me a Grade 1 tradesperson. I sailed it really until I got pregnant and I contacted the Dublin Office and SIPTU, as I felt that the boss would try and fire me. When I had everything in place, I told the boss. He told me to drop the tools and take up a sweeping brush. I had used angle-grinders, pneumatic tools and big saws. I activated the Dublin office, who told me to take a week off sick and they would put a work plan in place that would allow me to continue to work and to use less heavy-duty plant and equipment.
I was allowed to use my workshop and had an English trainer who taught me to use hand tools to get the same result as heavy equipment. My pregnancy continued naturally and I took a standard maternity leave. The trouble began when I returned to work after the baby. I was harassed by a member of upper management, which terrified me. I was still expressing milk. One day he cornered me in a deserted room of the castle and shoved me up against the wall, I was in a head lock and I got away, as someone came up the steps. I reported the guy straightaway and was straightaway given two weeks' notice.
I do not know how long it took to get the issue to the Labour Court. The whole court came down south, I remember flags and baize tables. What I remember most is that my personal diary was admitted as evidence and I had to read out loud what happened to me and how it affected my new motherhood and my partner. It tore me up, as I was advised to bring the diary and after I read it, it was passed round the room. The day resulted in a settlement which amounted to my transfer from my workshop and HQ to an outlying area in a remote part of Kerry. I would not have all the guys around me and although I would have a workshop, I knew that the story had gone round everywhere and that there was resentment.
I went to my new workshop and the first day, a truck came bringing the stones I had been working on to the new location. They used a hoist to place them on the benches, they also used rollers to locate the stones (they were limestone and sills, heavy architecture) the area that I was working in was primarily sandstone, so basically, I was doing the same job on a transfer settlement, which basically got me offsite. I do not know if the harasser/abuser was transferred or fired – no one told me.
A few weeks into the job, I had an inevitable accident – I had no GOs (general operatives) to call on, there was only one on-site and he stuck to the mason. I tore out all the muscles on my arm and had to be brought to a DR. I had severe damage to my muscles, ligaments, tendons and some vertebrae. I was on disability for about a year, I could not look after my now toddler or pick him up, and I had just separated from my ex husband.
I know for a fact that this accident which involved my trying to access parts of the sill that were backed onto a bench and my attempts to shift it slightly did not help. As a tradeswoman, I was entitled to two GOs, but no-one was accessible. I was shoved out to a barely serviced site to get me out of the way. It felt like punishment. In the interim I had qualified, yet, after 4 years I had not received my papers.
I could not work and had to have physiotherapy, steroidal shots, anti-inflammatories which made me sick and I had no qualification papers. My son was in a crèche from 10am-6pm as I was unable to mind him. I launched a personal injury and constructive dismissal case – partly to get my qualifications and papers, and party because I felt my local employer had left me in a dangerous site without adequate support.
It took nearly eight years to get the case into a courtroom, they subpoenaed my friend to speak against me.They had called me during the eight years at least once to another county for a settlement meeting and no one had turned up. The whole process was nasty and uncalled for.
I was on the stand for what felt like an age, and at some point my solicitor took me into a room to advise that they were going to settle out of court. I took it, though it wasn't much – I was overjoyed that I got my day in court and that I got my papers. I think they relented on the papers during the pre-court process. My friend told me that he was prepared to speak, but he felt that they brought him to court to unnerve me. In the eight years of hell, they were contacted by the Chief State Solicitor for ignoring the statute of limitations. My whole team, solicitor, SC, JC, forensic engineer and physiotherapist refused fees and stood with me in court.
If my employers (at local level) had accepted in the first place that an abuse had occurred and fired the abuser, they would have saved themselves and me a lot of shit, but institutions tend to protect the perps.
My life was blighted and I had a massive gap in my CV, my son was minded by strangers and I had to go on the dole. if employers read this: I was a good worker, who was attacked weeks after the birth of my first baby by someone who destroyed my professional life. Listen to women, have something in place to help us.
I have started again, but it is hard to be in the work place even though I am no longer in a male-dominated industry.