Gender-based violence in the workplace – why a new ILO Convention can help

by 25th Aug 2017
A garment factory manager holds a sign supporting CARE Cambodia’s campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace A garment factory manager holds a sign supporting CARE Cambodia’s campaign against sexual harassment in the workplace

Largely through the efforts of the Trade Union movement, the ILO is now in a process of considering whether to establish a new instrument or instruments on “Ending violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work”. CARE views this as a great opportunity to reduce the prevalence of the gender-based violence (GBV) which faces the women workers around the world whom we try to support on issues of Dignified Work.

GBV is both a cause and a consequence of poverty and gender inequality, and it is a central barrier to women’s economic empowerment. GBV also has enormous economic cost in terms of services (health, police, legal) and decreased productivity, with flow-on effects to family income, mental health and food security.

For instance, recent CARE research in Cambodia showed that sexual harassment is a regular occurrence: “nearly one in three women garment factory workers report experiencing sexually harassing behaviours in the workplace over the last 12 months”. It also estimated that the productivity cost of sexual harassment in the garment industry in Cambodia is US$89 million per annum.

The International Trade Union Confederation have identified numerous forms of GBV at work, whether occurring at the actual place of work or on the way to and from work, including:

  • Physical abuse including assault, battery, attempted murder and murder
  • Sexual violence including rape and sexual assault
  • Sexual harassment
  • Verbal and sexist abuse
  • Bullying
  • Coercion
  • Psychological abuse, intimidation and threats of violence
  • Economic and financial abuse
  • Stalking

Global value chains make workers particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and other forms of GBV on the factory floor.  Power differences between a mostly female workforce and majority male management in the factories, in addition to a repetitive and high-pressure work setting based on meeting production targets, have all been identified as factors that lead to a hostile work environment. And this is in an environment of broader power differences and deep-rooted social norms and practices that de-value women and their economic contribution, as well as stigma and vulnerability associated with certain types of work (eg in garment factories).

However, GBV in global value chains remains a largely hidden issue. It rarely appears on ethical audit reports and data on prevalence and the impact it has is fractured. GBV at work is also often low on the priority list of brands and employers – as it is not considered a core labour rights issue – and trade unions often fail to prioritise it, despite the largely female workforce in the industry.

So how will an ILO Convention help to prevent this? The ILO is the tripartite (government, employers, workers’ representatives) arm of the UN which focuses on working conditions, and work-related social protection. Its Conventions form a “fundamental law” of working conditions. A new ILO Convention on ending violence and harassment in the workplace would require governments to pursue an integrated approach to address violence and harassment in the world of work, delineating clear responsibilities for public and private employers, workers and their respective organisations, and governments, and joint strategies and collaboration. Any government ratifying an ILO Convention is committing itself to applying the Convention in national law and practice and reporting its application at regular intervals; in addition, complaints can be made against countries for violations of a Convention they have ratified.

A new Convention therefore will push countries, employers and indeed trade unions and other worker representatives to place greater priority on recognising, tackling and remedying violence and harassment at work. So CARE is strongly supportive of the initiative and is committed to working with others across government, employers and trade unions to achieve a progressive and effective Convention and supporting Recommendations. As noted earlier, trade unions have been pushing for such a Convention for some time and the ITUC (the unions’ global coordinating body) has been campaigning actively internationally.

Although the process of deciding whether or not to bring a new Convention into being will continue until 2020 (see the process diagram below), there is an immediate opportunity to influence the ILO in its thinking as the ILO are seeking replies by 22 September 2017 to their Questionnaire (issued in May this year) on the Convention. Replies are submitted by ILO member States in line with a protocol that requires States to consult with employers’ and workers’ representatives. CARE will be working with our allies to at least persuade governments to strongly support the Convention and hopefully to go further by aligning government replies to some of the key points we would like to see covered by the Convention and Recommendations. We’ll be publishing the details of those shortly here on Insights.

We ask everyone interested in women’s rights and in workers’ rights to support the ILO Convention – check out the ITUC Campaign, keep up to date with what’s happening via Insights, and ask your own organisation what it is doing to support the Campaign.


ILO standard setting process diagram

Diagram from ITUC: Stop Gender Based Violence at work! Support an ILO Convention!

Gerry Boyle

Gerry led CARE International UK’s policy analysis and advocacy around value chains and dignified work. He originally joined CARE as the Senior Policy Adviser on Private Sector Engagement. With the advent of our new Global Programme Strategy which put a particular emphasis on women’s economic empowerment, his focus changed a little.

Gerry co-chaired the Bond Private Sector Working Group. Immediately before he joined CARE he worked for Oxfam as Head of Business Relations for about three years, but the vast majority of his career was spent as a management consultant including being a consulting Partner at Deloitte, where for a time he led Deloitte UK’s Consumer Business consulting practice, serving many major multinationals. Gerry's original degree was in Law from Oxford University, and in 2008 when he left Deloitte he did an MSc in Philosophy and Public Policy at LSE.

One good thing I've read

Amartya Sen’s Development as Freedom. It provides a framework for many people’s modern understanding of what is development, based on a profoundly human-centred approach rather than anything instrumental. And to check whether one personally is doing enough to fight poverty, I recommend Peter Singer’s The life you can save: Acting now to end world poverty – it’s very clear and easy to read but very challenging! Finally, Ha-Joon Chang’s Bad Samaritans: Rich nations, poor policies, and the threat to the developing world is a very readable guide to economic development which argues strongly against many of the prevailing orthodoxies.

Twitter: @gerryboyle10