We have a new ILO Violence and Harassment Convention. What happens next?

by 29th Jul 2019
A garment factory worker in Vietnam A garment factory worker in Vietnam

On 21 June 2019, the International Labour Conference voted to adopt a new ILO Convention and Recommendation to end violence and harassment in the world of work. What does the adoption of this treaty mean, and what happens next?

In June this year, representatives from governments, unions and employers’ organisations gathered in Geneva to commemorate 100 years of tripartite engagement at the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Among the many celebratory events and meetings taking place over the course of the two-week International Labour Conference, one series of discussions was followed very closely by many who had been campaigning for years for a new international labour standard on ending violence and harassment in the world of work.

The ILO’s Standard Setting Committee was meeting to hammer out the details of a proposed new Convention and Recommendation. If they could agree the wording to the instruments, there would be, for the first time ever, a global, legally-binding treaty dealing specifically with keeping workers everywhere safe from violence and harassment at work.

Who voted for it?

On Thursday 20 June the Standard Setting Committee announced that they had reached agreement on the text, and the proposed Convention and Recommendation were put before the full Conference for a vote in plenary.

Out of the ILO’s 187 Member States, 135 governments were represented at that session. Combined with representatives of workers’ and employers’ organisation, a total of 466 delegates voted on the proposal to adopt the new instruments on Friday 21 June.

When the votes were counted, there were NO votes against the Convention. 439 delegates voted in favour – that’s 94% of votes cast – and 30 abstained. (Abstentions were mostly from employers’ organisations, though the governments of 6 countries – El Salvador, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Paraguay, Russia and Singapore – also opted to abstain.)

The Recommendation – which sets out additional guidelines and, unlike the Convention, is not a legally-binding instrument – was also adopted with only a marginally smaller majority (397 delegates voted in favour, 12 voted against and 44 abstained).

The message from the International Labour Conference could hardly be clearer: no-one should be subjected to any kind of violence or harassment while trying to do their job.

Who is covered by the Convention?

This includes not only formal employees, working in traditional workplaces. The agreed wording of the Convention is wide and inclusive in its scope, extending protection to all kinds of workers in all sectors: formal and informal, urban and rural; and it applies wherever people find themselves in the course of doing their jobs, including while they’re commuting to and from work; as well as in online workspaces.

For CARE, the successful adoption of Convention 190 marks a huge milestone in our global campaign to make workplaces safe, particularly for vulnerable women. Spurred on by the fact that one in three countries currently have no laws against sexual harassment, and knowing that women are particularly vulnerable to being attacked or harassed at work due to deeply-entrenched power imbalances that prevail in many workplaces, we celebrate the achievement and share the joy of the countless others that have been campaigning on this issue for many years.

What does it mean in practice?

But this is merely a step in the process – albeit a momentous one. We have a new international law on the statute books: but so far, it only exists on paper. Although it sends a powerful message that there is now a globally-recognised minimum standard of prevention and protection, nothing has yet changed on the ground.

ILO conventions really start having an impact on a practical level once they are ratified and translated into national laws.

When does it come into effect?

Like most ILO instruments, this Convention, with its accompanying Recommendation, will officially come into effect one year after two Member State governments have ratified it. Once a government has ratified the Convention, they have one year to get their house in order and enact the necessary legislation to comply with the Convention’s stipulations. In some cases, this would only need existing laws to be strengthened or gaps to be filled; and in a handful of countries, it might not even require any new legislation at all, as laws may already exist covering all the areas outlined in the Convention.

But in many countries, brand-new laws will be needed – and this usually takes some time to put into place. Sometimes what will be needed is not only the creation of new laws but a large-scale shift in social norms and perceptions, which can take years, if not decades.

Why we need to keep up the pressure…

This is why CARE will not stop campaigning on this issue. We have a new global standard which we are so excited about – but it needs to be given practical form through national-level legislation which is then implemented and enforced. Only then will vulnerable women start seeing the benefits of years of concerted efforts by workers’ and women’s rights groups across the globe, of relentless advocacy and campaigning at the national and international level. Only when the Convention is ratified and action taken to put it into practice can its existence start changing things on the ground in those countries where protection is currently inadequate or wholly absent.

We will soon be reaching out to the many people and organisations who have supported our campaign to once again mobilise action, this time to persuade governments around the world to ratify Convention 190. You have already contributed so much to making change happen – let’s not lose momentum! The real work starts now.

Hester Le Roux

Hester Le Roux is Senior Economic Advisor for CARE International UK.