Move to restrict use of non-disclosure agreements in workplace cases

Women paid as little as €5,000 in severance after abuse then ‘forever silenced’

Senator Lynn Ruane called for support for Bill intended to restrict the use of NDAs in the workplace following incidents of sexual harassment. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

Senator Lynn Ruane called for support for Bill intended to restrict the use of NDAs in the workplace following incidents of sexual harassment. File photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons / The Irish Times

 

MARIE O’HALLORAN

Women are receiving severance payments of as little as €5,000 and being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) for abuse, bullying or discrimination they were subjected to in the workplace, the Seanad has been told.

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane said research conducted for legislation to restrict the use of such agreements showed that they are widespread in Ireland.

“But so many people are afraid to speak out and are only speaking anonymously because they are afraid of losing their livelihood” and ability to pay their mortgages.

Ms Ruane was speaking as she introduced her Employment Equality (Amendment) (Non-Disclosure Agreement) Bill. She said the legislation “will restrict the use of legal non-disclosure agreements in the workplace following incidents of sexual harassment and discrimination under equality legislation”.

It will “ensure that the only NDA that would be legally enforceable would be those requested by the victim to protect their own confidentiality”.

“No other NDAs after workplace sexual harassment or discrimination would be permitted,” she said.

Pointing to the levels of abuse and the low payments, the Trinity College Senator said “some women have been paid off for as little as €5,000 severance and told then they can never speak about the abuse, bullying or discrimination they received within the workplace”.

Ms Ruane acknowledged that there would always be a need to ensure legal confidentiality to protect sensitive information in the commercial or legal sectors.

But, she said, “the main legal effect of an NDA following sexual harassment is to silence the victim from speaking out and to release employers from the obligation to hold perpetrators properly accountable for their actions.

“With the growth of the Me Too movement and Ireland’s continuing reckoning with a shameful history and culture of silencing the vulnerable, these agreements should not be an option to force victims of harassment and discrimination to remain silent and should be banned.”

Appealing to Senators across the House to back the legislation she told them she is hosting an online briefing on Thursday at 6.30pm through Eventbrite.

Speakers will include Zelda Perkins, the former assistant to Harvey Weinstein who was the first woman to break an NDA signed with the film producer and now convicted sex offender.

Also attending will be Professor Julie Macfarlane, who the Seanad was told was successfully sued for defamation after refusing to give false character references for a serial abuser in a Canadian university; senior counsel Georgina Calvert-Lee, who has challenged the use of confidentiality clauses in the UK, and Ifeoma Ozoma, who challenged the NDA she signed with social media company Pinterest.