We made history with the Violence and Harassment Convention – now comes the work of bringing the law to life

The euphoria that erupted in the room said it all. Workers, governments and, yes, some employers rose to their feet to celebrate the adoption of the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 by the International Labour Conference (ILC). It had been an arduous and complex journey, with 10 years of trade union campaigning. And it was a fitting way to mark the 100th anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The journey began with the need to convince government and employer members of the ILO that international standards to address gender-based violence (GBV) against women were necessary. A 2009 Resolution of the ILC had recognised the devastating impact of GBV on women’s dignity, safety and autonomy at work, often excluding them altogether from the labour force. The Resolution called for the prohibition of GBV in the workplace and for the implementation of policies, programmes, legislation and other measures to prevent it.

Aware that protection in legislation against GBV at work differed vastly across countries, trade unions immediately called on the ILO, through its annual labour conference, to negotiate a binding international labour law (or Convention) to prevent gender-based violence against women, everywhere.

In order for the ILC to engage in standard-setting, the ILO’s Governing Body has to agree that a problem exists, and that it needs to be addressed. Whilst some governments supported the idea of a binding standard from the outset, many other governments needed convincing. Further, the employers’ group within the ILO was steadfastly opposed, arguing that whilst the topic was important, new legal standards were not necessary. The trade union movement and allied civil society groups mounted a concerted campaign demanding support for an ILO Convention. After several years of back and forth, in 2015 the ILO finally launched a standard-setting process on “violence against women and men in the world of work”, acknowledging that whilst women are overwhelmingly more at risk, everyone can be affected by violence at work.

Adopting ILO standards is a lengthy process involving, in this case, four years of consultations with governments, trade unions and employers, expert reports, meetings of experts and tripartite negotiations. In the meantime, explosive revelations of sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry spread over social media via the #MeToo movement, reinforcing the magnitude and urgency of the problem. If women in relative positions of security, power and influence had silently endured sexual harassment and assault for so long, how much worse must the situation be for the garment worker, domestic worker, street vendor, transport worker, hospitality worker or health worker?

The most wide-reaching set of labour standards yet

On 21 June 2019, history was made. The Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) and its accompanying Recommendation (R206) may be the most wide-reaching set of labour standards yet adopted by the ILO, establishing the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment. In defining violence and harassment as a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices, the Convention focuses on the harm that may be caused, whether physical, psychological, sexual or economic. It also recognises and defines the specificities of gender-based violence and harassment.

The Convention applies to every sector, in the formal and informal economy and in rural and urban areas. It covers all workers irrespective of their contractual status, including job applicants, job seekers, volunteers, trainees, interns, apprentices and workers whose employment has been terminated. And it recognises that people whose experience of violence and harassment is exacerbated by discrimination and inequality must have the strongest and most robust protection. It leaves no one behind.

C190 expands the concept of the world of work beyond the immediate physical workplace, covering situations linked to or arising out of work, such as work-related trips, travel or social activities and ‘cyber-bullying’, and it demands that violence and harassment involving third parties – whether they are clients, customers, patients, or members of the public – be considered and addressed.

It requires action to mitigate the impact of domestic violence in the world of work, providing a lifeline to victims of domestic violence who might otherwise lose their job or be forced to choose between income and safety.

The approach of this ground-breaking and visionary Convention is to recognise that gender-based violence and harassment is a systemic issue rooted in unequal and abusive power relations in society as in the world of work, and intersecting systems of oppression.

It calls on governments to put in place the necessary legislative and policy measures to prevent, expose and remedy (gender-based) violence and harassment, including attributing clear lines of responsibility.

The challenge now is to secure wide ratification and implementation of Convention 190. Uruguay looks set to become the first country to ratify and, encouragingly, several other countries – including Namibia, South Africa, Uganda, Belgium, Spain, France and Ireland – have indicated a desire to ratify the Convention as soon as possible. Trade unions and allied movements will again need to mobilise to ensure that this happens. On 7 October, the World Day for Decent Work, trade unions are united in demanding the right of all care workers to living wages, equal pay for work of equal value and safe and healthy working environments that are free from discrimination, violence and harassment.

Convention 190 and Recommendation 206 offer hope and belief. Hope that violence and harassment in the world of work can be consigned to the past. And belief in the power of organised labour – especially women in trade unions – to transform our working realities.