Ending workplace violence and harassment – significant progress but no time to rest on our laurels

by 12th Mar 2020
Alicia Lanchimba experienced workplace abuse as a domestic worker; now she is an activist for women's rights Alicia Lanchimba experienced workplace abuse as a domestic worker; now she is an activist for women's rights

On International Women’s Day, 8 March 2020, advocates for better labour rights, especially for women workers, have been celebrating a major achievement: there is now a new international labour standard that recognises everyone’s right to work free from violence and harassment. Yet nothing will change on the ground for working women and men until governments strengthen laws, and employers improve policies and practices.

The news on 24 February that a jury had found Harvey Weinstein guilty of sexual assault and third-degree rape and that he would almost certainly be spending a considerable time in prison (he was subsequently sentenced to a total of 23 years in prison) was met with relief by many who had been closely watching the much-anticipated trial. At the same time, protests have been erupting in Chile, India, Mexico and elsewhere around gender-based violence. People have taken to the streets in rising numbers to protest horrific rates of femicide against women and girls, many of them indigenous and poor, in places like Ciudad Juarez, the ‘femicide’ capital of the world.

Bringing perpetrators to justice

However, it is sobering to note the enormous amount of time and effort that was required to secure the Harvey Weinstein verdict – and this in a country where workplace harassment has been illegal for decades and in a case where the evidence was profuse: over 100 women had reportedly come forward to share stories of Weinstein’s abusive and exploitative behaviour over many years, and six testified against him at his trial. So imagine how much harder it is to bring perpetrators to justice in the 59 jurisdictions that currently have no laws against workplace sexual harassment, or the many others where laws may exist on paper but where implementation is patchy or non-existent.

Workplace violence and harassment is widespread around the world; no country and no industry is immune. People of all genders suffer, with those that lack power at work being most at risk. Poor and marginalised women are often engaged in precarious jobs where they are particularly exposed to abuse and exploitation with little access to protection, and where they depend on their pay to survive and support their families. Worldwide, as many as one in three women experience violence and harassment at work; in those sectors that employ predominantly women, rates of violence and harassment are even higher.

Violence and harassment is still widespread

It is in support of and alongside these millions of women that CARE campaigned for two years to agree a strong, gender-responsive and inclusive international law to keep all workers safe from violence and harassment. Women’s organisations, many of them grassroots and locally-led, have been advocating for decades for better protection against violence and harassment for working women. Notable among these is the international domestic workers’ movement who have been advocating for better rights for women workers for many years, finally achieving a Domestic Workers Convention in 2011.

Activists call for new global law

Inspired by this activism and spurred on by the #MeToo movement, first created by Black American feminist women and increasingly supported by prominent and high-profile allies, the movement for an international standard on violence and harassment in the workplace gained huge momentum. Things took off once the International Labour Organisation (ILO) agreed in 2015 to initiate tripartite discussions between governments, employers and workers’ representatives on a new global labour standard to deal with workplace violence and harassment. When #MeToo finally burst into the mainstream in 2017 on the back of the Weinstein case, that lent further impetus and urgency to the call to action.

Last year we used the spotlight of International Women’s Day to urge all parties to the ILO to adopt a strong and inclusive international instrument which would protect all workers against sexual harassment and violence at work, wherever they work – from garment factories and construction sites to informal street vendors and domestic workers. And on 21 June 2019, we celebrated along with our allies and partners when the ILO announced that the Convention on Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work had been adopted with an overwhelming majority of votes – over 90% – at the annual International Labour Conference in Geneva.

New convention provides comprehensive protection - in theory

Convention 190 states clearly that everyone has the right to work free from violence and harassment and, alongside its accompanying Recommendation, sets out a comprehensive system for ensuring that governments and employers take the necessary steps to recognise, respect and protect this right. It sends a strong signal that norms are shifting and that a higher standard of behaviour is now expected in workplaces around the world.

One of the key features of the new instrument is how comprehensive it is in scope. The entire range of unacceptable behaviour that constitutes ‘violence and harassment’ is covered. All workers are protected: whether they work in formal or informal environments, with or without contracts – including those employed at the furthest reaches of intricate and often obscure supply chains. The ILO Convention also protects those being interviewed for jobs, or working as interns, trainees, or apprentices. It applies to whatever places workers spend time in over the course of the day – including where they change and wash, where they take meals, where they stay if accommodation is provided by the employer, when they attend work receptions, while they travel to and from work; as well as in the online workspace.

There is no doubt that the adoption of Convention 190 marked a hugely significant milestone in the struggle to keep women safe at work. This year’s International Women’s Day is a good moment to reflect on the achievement and to recognise the effort that went into making it happen, with tireless campaigning both outside and inside the corridors of power.

Now Covention 190 must be ratified

But it is also a good moment to recognise that, so far, this new international law has no power. Until it has been ratified by two of the ILO’s Member States, it has no legal force. We know that many countries have been working hard behind the scenes, preparing for ratification, fully intending to match the global standard in their national laws – only last week, the ILO shared the encouraging news that Uruguay, Finland, Spain and Argentina have all pledged to ratify C190 – and we recognise that the wheels of bureaucracy can turn slowly. In many cases regulatory hurdles need to be cleared out of the way before ratification can happen. For example, members of the European Union need to wait for certain EU processes to run their course before they are able to ratify ILO instruments.

But it is essential that momentum is not lost during this period of hiatus. CARE and others want to remind governments that the eyes of the world are on them, and that we expect the emphatic statement made at the Conference last year, with a 90% vote in support of the Convention, to now be matched with commitment to turn strong words on paper into strong laws in practice. Which will be the first country to register its ratification of C190 with the ILO? Which country will be next? Who will show themselves to be true leaders in the struggle to make workplaces safer for women and men around the world? Who will we be praising and celebrating on the next International Women’s Day?

About the photo: Alicia Lanchimba pictured at her home near Cotacachi, Ecuador. Alicia’s life as a maid began at age 10. Her first few years were generally positive, as she was paid, educated and well taken care of. She took a new job with an employer in Colombia, however, and spent the next several years unpaid, threatened and pressured to have sex (which she resisted) as a means of control forced onto her by her employer. When she finally returned to Cotacachi at age 17, she found support in her Indigenous Women’s Association, regained her self-esteem and became an activist. Today she works to educate her community to prevent the same abuses from extending to the next generation, fighting to ensure her daughters grow up safe and educated. She says: "In our culture, women are not believed while men are regarded as always telling the truth. We need to start respecting women and listening to their stories in order to end the violence and abuse."