Violence and harassment is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world of work. It is persistent across countries and sectors, and is a key barrier to women’s access to decent work and economic opportunities.
It is now widely recognised that gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) has soared in many countries during the pandemic and the global economic crisis following in its wake, leading to a ‘shadow pandemic’ of GBV. With many women confined to their homes due to lockdowns and other restrictions, the rise in domestic violence rates has been particularly concerning. In Vietnam, for example, CARE’s research among garment workers revealed that the rate of violence against women during the COVID-19 pandemic almost doubled to 53.2% compared with the previous 12 months.
This shadow pandemic is also affecting women where they work – in frontline occupations, in their homes, in workplaces and online.
We have a powerful international instrument to help address this issue. In June 2019, a new ILO Violence and Harassment Convention, C190, and an associated Recommendation, R206, were adopted with an overwhelming majority vote at the annual International Labour Conference in Geneva. This marked a significant milestone as the Convention is the first international labour instrument that recognises the right of everyone to work free from violence and harassment.
Strong and inclusive in scope, it covers all workers, regardless of contractual status, and irrespective of where they find themselves in the course of doing their work, including home-based workers. The Convention recognises that online activity forms part of the world of work, and its protective provisions extend to this domain as well.
Whilst it does not focus exclusively on women, the Convention is especially important to women in jobs characterised by a high risk of GBVH and challenges to accessing justice and legal protection. These include many home-based workers and those in precarious jobs in the informal sector. The Convention is also hugely significant in its recognition of the impacts of domestic violence on workers. It is therefore directly relevant to our current situation of increased rates of GBVH in homes, in workplaces and online.
But to make a difference to workers on the ground, individual governments have to ratify C190, thereby committing to meet the new international standard in their national laws and policies. Although 129 countries voted in favour of the Convention in 2019, so far only five – Uruguay, Fiji, Namibia, Argentina, and Somalia – have taken this next step and committed to turning their vote in Geneva into practical action on the ground. Another two countries (Italy and Ecuador) have publicly stated that they are committed to ratification and have completed all the necessary legal steps at national level though their ratifications have not yet been registered by the ILO.
In the Asia-Pacific region, no ratifications beyond Fiji have so far been announced, despite the fact that workplace GBVH remains a significant challenge, with sectors such as garment manufacturing especially hard hit. For example, in Bangladesh 80% of garment workers – two-thirds of whom are women – have experienced or witnessed sexual violence and harassment at work. Research conducted in the South-East Asia region suggests that close to one in two women workers in garment factories have experienced sexual harassment.
Nevertheless, there are clear signs of progress and several countries in the region have taken encouraging steps towards ratification, often driven by strong engagement from the union movement. ILO representatives working in the region recently indicated that they are very hopeful that Samoa will ratify the Convention before the end of the year. In the Philippines, the Department of Labour and Employment set up an inter-agency Technical Working Committee to oversee the ratification process, with active union engagement. An analysis of relevant regulatory provisions has been completed and a resolution was introduced via the TUCP union in the House of Representatives calling for the immediate ratification of the Convention. In Indonesia, The Coalition for Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (consisting of unions, CSOs and other stakeholders) has submitted position papers and briefings on C190 and the need for ratification to the labour ministry as well as Parliament. In Japan, a liaison committee has been created, composed of relevant ministries and the Japanese Trade Union Confederation (RENGO), and discussions on ratification in this forum are ongoing.
It is also becoming clear that C190 is already influencing practice on the ground: unions report that a number of recently-agreed collective bargaining agreements with employer bodies borrow language from the text of the Convention and Recommendation; or even refer explicitly to commitments to comply with national legislation which may be adopted in future following ratification of C190. This confirms that a growing number of employers recognise that this Convention has established a new standard for GBVH prevention, protection and redress; and that they need to strengthen their policies and practices to meet this standard, regardless of whether their governments have ratified C190.
On International Women’s Day this month, trade unions, in alliance with women’s rights organisations, feminist, human rights and social justice movements, called for a ‘New Social Contract’ to repair trust and rebuild democracy. Guaranteeing women’s human rights and labour rights, including the right to live and work free from violence and harassment, is a key component of this demand and should be a cornerstone of a gender-just recovery from the impacts of COVID-19.
CARE, ActionAid, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Asia Pacific and International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW)-Asia Pacific are campaigning to push for the ratification of the ILO Convention 190, especially across the Asia Pacific region. Following a successful information-sharing event last year, the partners have created a website, https://www.ratifyc190.org/ where resources and regional updates on progress towards ratification will be shared.
In the run-up to Convention 190 taking legal effect on 25 June this year, we will be intensifying our efforts, jointly and individually, to persuade more governments to signal their commitment to eliminating violence and harassment from the world of work by ratifying and implementing Convention 190 as soon as possible. It is time to translate the votes in support of the Convention into practical action on the ground. Violence and harassment should not be part of anyone’s job – let us use this international standard to help eliminate it from workplaces around the world.
 CARE (2017) STOP Baseline.
 Presentation by Elena Gerasimova, Decent Work and International Labour Standards Specialist, ILO in Fiji, at the 2nd UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights, 18 March 2021.
 Presentation by Anna Lee Fos-Tuvera, Director - Gender Equality Activities, İTUC-Asia Pacific in Singapore, at the 2nd UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights, 18 March 2021.
This blog was co-authored by Hester Le Roux, Senior Economic Advisor, Advocacy & Policy team, CARE International UK; and Siddikur Rahman, Women’s Economic Justice Advocacy Advisor – Asia.