Stories of sexual harassment and violence seem to be making their way around the world in rising waves, gathering in pace and number as tremors from a Hollywood quake. Hearing them, many of us have had two contradictory reactions. One is outrage at the abuse that so many women have suffered – the other a deep sense of weariness at its predictability. How could anyone be surprised that in the most glamorous of industries, and in the corridors of power at Westminster, men’s exploitation of their power and privilege continues?
It is as though someone has switched on a light to expose a sordid scene of exploitation and abuse that had always been going on in the dark. If anyone doubted that sexual harassment and violence in the workplace was still an urgent problem in the 21st century then the Hollywood scandal, the Westminster sleaze and subsequent outpouring of survivor testimonies over the last weeks with #metoo, is a telling reminder that abuse and exploitation remain ubiquitous.
Poor women are the most vulnerable
But we know from our work in communities around the world that poor women are even more vulnerable to abuse due to the fact they are working in some of the most exploitative and under-paid sectors of the economy with little protection from the law.
Take domestic workers in Latin America, whose jobs are generally hidden from public view and where reports of rape by family members they work for are not uncommon. Or take the 1 in 3 garment workers in Cambodia who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last year. Women’s poverty means they will do everything to keep the job, whatever the personal costs – this exposes them the most and makes them least able to speak out, or report incidents or to seek redress.
We need to talk about the problem and work to change attitudes around violence and harassment and it is heartening to see the many men speaking out. However, we can’t solely rely on the beneficence of ‘fathers of daughters’ to step up and voluntarily change the shape of a world that is, and has always been, moulded so intricately and comprehensively to accommodate and uphold men’s sense of entitlement. We need a transformation in social norms towards what we all agree is acceptable in our communities, workplaces and homes.
Addressing the prevalence of this abuse also requires stronger laws and better accountability. It’s sad to say it, but basic decency needs to be enshrined in law.
Legal protection is needed
In September this year – as stories of Hollywood exploitation were emerging – governments and experts were outlining one such option: a Global Convention to end violence and harassment in the workplace proposed by the International Labour Organisation – the ILO.
Such a law would hold governments and other stakeholders like employers and trade unions to account and help put an end to impunity. Together with many other local and international organisations, CARE International is working to try and increase awareness and support for this law across the world (the UK government has not yet expressed any public view on it).
The Convention needs to be as comprehensive as possible. We are demanding that it protects people wherever they work, be that formal or informal sectors. It needs to include often overlooked areas like working in homes and in public places and needs to include all people in that workplace including interns or volunteers.
Such a global convention provides a real opportunity to challenge governments around the world to strengthen national laws that uphold the rights of workers to be free from violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. The recent cases in the media have emphasised some key areas that need to be included in order for the Convention to address sexual harassment comprehensively.
Three key steps to protecting women
First, the Convention should require companies and staff to provide training to help prevent violence and harassment, such as through the employment of occupational health and safety officers, and training of human resources personnel, managers and supervisors.
Second, protection must also be extended to witnesses and whistleblowers, as well as complainants. Often workers experiencing violence and harassment do not come forward for fear of retaliation or reprisals. This has been the story of so many of those who have now felt able to bear witness via the #metoo movement on social media. Very few jurisdictions protect witnesses and whistleblowers, who can also face acts of victimisation.
Third, the impact of violence and harassment in the workplace should be considered as compensatable occupational illness under workers’ compensation insurance – which will make it much more in the interests of wider businesses and insurance to put measures in place to reduce it.
The many thousands of women (and some men) who have shared their #metoo stories and highlighted the magnitude of the problem are providing testimonies. These are each single stitches in a huge collective tapestry of pain which demands change. We need both a transformation of social norms and strengthened legislation working together to demand more accountability in society. We need mechanisms to keep the light on, when the media’s attention moves elsewhere.