Jodi Evans, the Assistant Coordinator for Women Transport Workers at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has heard many horror stories of violence against women workers from across the globe. But one example that stands out is of a female bus conductor who was stripped and badly beaten on a crowded bus by a man who took offense at being stopped from entering through the wrong doors.
“There are high levels of violence in Indian society, with women bus conductors in the state of Maharashtra facing daily abuse and some very extreme forms of violence and rape. Of 7000 to 8000 women employees, at least half are working in high-risk positions and we have seen elevated levels of suicide and miscarriages,” she tells Equal Times.
This is just one scenario in a great, wide sea of abuse and violence facing workers both male and female worldwide.
In response, trade union activists have been lobbying for a binding International Labour Organization (ILO) convention against violence in the workplace for many years. At the end of 2015, the ILO finally announced that a debate for a convention will be on the agenda in 2018.
Violence in the workplace can take place in several forms – from physical abuse, such as assault and murder, to sexual harassment and violence, bullying and intimidation to economic abuse.
In a verbal statement made following the ILO debate, an ITUC spokesperson said: “Women are disproportionately affected by violence at work. We know from the stories of women working in the private and public sectors that gender-based violence is an almost daily part of their working lives.”
Given just how widespread the threat of workplace violence is globally, why has it taken so long to get the topic on the agenda of the ILO’s Governing Body? Raquel González, Director of the ITUC Geneva Office and Secretary of the Workers’ Group of the Governing Body told Equal Times that “some members states did not see the need of a standard,” while others felt that the “the international standards that already exist were covering the issues. Employers were not in favour of a standard for all the usual ideological reasons and they are not in favour of international obligations.”
González believes that the real fight ahead will be over the scope of the convention and whether it will be a binding instrument that creates obligation when a country ratifies it. Campaigners also want to ensure that an expert panel will be convened to examine these issues.
Controversially, the ITUC also wants to include support for survivors of domestic and familial violence in the standard, at a time when many unions still do not see this form of violence as a labour issue.
One notable exception has been the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) which scored a massive victory when it won an entitlement for one million workers to be given some form of paid leave to escape violent situations.
Belinda Tkalcevic, Industrial Officer at the ACTU, tells Equal Times: “It took us a while to understand why [domestic violence] is a workplace issue. But once we understood that one of the main reasons women stayed trapped was financial, we knew we needed to support someone to move, help them to protect the children and keep their job.”
Tkalcevic says that the support from the unions for this measure has been significant. “You cannot underestimate the support of unions in this. If they hadn’t supported it, it would not have happened.”
Evans agrees on the importance of local union action, telling Equal Times: “As women and bus conductors there was very little value in their lives. In the time I have been working with the [Maharashtra State Road Transport Union, which includes the city of Mumbai – editor’s note] several women have taken their own lives. This is avoidable, and where once [women workers] felt their lives were hopeless and grim, now they have a glimmer of hope.”
This glimmer of hope came in the form of changes at the Union, such as more women in leadership positions, more women in the job, the support of male colleagues and the provision of safe spaces to speak about their experiences. “Male union members have seen that women bring value to the union and [women] are proving their industrial merit to the broader union.”
Additionally, a collective campaign – formed by women’s NGOs, along with passenger and other transport unions – was taken one step further on 25 November, 2015 when over 2000 activists marched on the company offices in Mumbai, India. This was the first time passenger unions were also involved.
Rubber stamp culture
However, Evans expresses some doubts over the true scope an ILO convention, pointing to the corruption of sexual harassment committees that already exist in some companies. Instead of hearing sexual harassment complaints, they often dismiss them.
“There is this culture of rubber stamping things and implementing them in a corrupt way," he says. "I think it will come down to women in the unions to use this as another tool.”
González also has some doubts, especially with regards to the scope and format of any potential convention. “We mobilised our unions to lobby their governments ahead of the debate and there has been a shift in support. We have had half a victory and a step in the right direction, but we haven’t yet won what we want. National centres and all of us need to remain mobilised to continue to push to get a binding instrument.”