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Lawmakers aim to quash #MeToo-style gagging clauses that silence workplace abuse 

Workplace diversity & equality updates

Lawmakers in Ireland and California are seeking to block victims of workplace abuse from being gagged by controversial contract clauses exposed by the #MeToo movement, in a move that supporters say would have a particularly strong impact on the tech sector.

Politicians on both sides of the Atlantic have joined forces with campaigners including Zelda Perkins, the former assistant of disgraced film producer Harvey Weinstein, to draft amendments to employment laws that would help victims of harassment and discrimination. 

They hope the efforts will put pressure on global tech companies, which are known for their widespread use of so-called non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) and have a large presence in Dublin as well as Silicon Valley. 

The #MeToo movement, which started in 2017, triggered a global outcry over employers’ extensive use of NDAs.

“Employers need to take responsibility for their workplaces and what goes on in them,” Perkins said. “We are not saying you can never have an NDA, but that you cannot have an agreement of a legal basis that covers up harmful behaviour or behaviour that could harm a third party in the future.”

Perkins, who broke her NDA with film studio Miramax to reveal allegations of sexual harassment, has helped draft an amendment to the Irish employment equality bill that would prevent NDAs from being used to cover up discrimination on the basis of the nine protected characteristics in Ireland’s Equalities Act.

The private members’ bill, which reached a crucial third stage last month, was devised by independent senator Lynn Ruane, who said she was compelled to act after growing concerned about NDAs her friends had signed. The bill, which has cross-party support, has not been opposed by the government. Campaigners say if it wins full support in the senate, it is likely to pass when it moves on to the Dáil Eireann (the lower house).

Zelda Perkins has helped draft an amendment to Ireland’s employment equality bill © Charlie Bibby/FT

Meanwhile in the US, former Pinterest executive Ifeoma Ozoma, who broke her NDA with the tech giant last year to make public allegations of racial discrimination, has teamed up with California senator Connie Leyva to introduce the “Silenced No More” bill.

It seeks to outlaw settlement deals that prevented employees from speaking about harassment and goes further than California’s existing laws passed in the wake of #MeToo in protecting individuals who break NDAs to disclose factual allegations relating to sexual harassment, assault or gender discrimination. 

Ozoma hopes the bill, which will be voted on by state legislators in the coming weeks, will pass and be signed into law this year.

“The worker protections enshrined in both bills would impact millions of people and make it easier to push for protections in even more jurisdictions, as the workers of those companies are scattered all across the globe,” she said, adding that gagging clauses were “inhumane”.

Her former employer Pinterest, which has a Dublin office, said in a statement that it “supports the [US] Silenced No More Act”, adding: “We want every employee to feel safe, championed and empowered to raise any concerns about their work experience.”

NDAs have long been used by companies to protect corporate secrets but have increasingly been deployed to silence those subjected to workplace bullying and harassment. In Britain, the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found in 2019 that some employers were abusing NDAs “to intimidate whistleblowers [or] conceal harassment or discrimination”.

Regulators, including the lawyers’ watchdog for England and Wales, have sought to toughen up guidance on how NDAs should be used, but few governments have taken steps to overhaul employment laws. 

Campaigners hope the legal reforms will act as a template for other countries. UK Conservative MP Maria Miller told the Financial Times she would push Westminster to take action in September in a 10-minute rule bill before Parliament.

Perkins said she was “optimistic” that Ireland would pass her bill, making Irish lawmakers “global leaders in providing the best employment regulation on NDAs, setting a precedent and providing a template for the UK and other legislators around the world”.

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