Will the ILO take a stand against gender-based violence at work?


A global coalition of trade unionists is piling on the pressure for governments and employers to come out in support of a new international Convention to stop gender-based violence (GBV) in the world of work.

The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Governing Body is meeting between 30 October and 13 November, and supporters of the new instrument want to ensure that it will be on the agenda of a future International Labour Conference in Geneva.

The ILO Governing Body has been discussing proposals to develop an international standard to tackle violence against women in the workplace for the last four years.

But in spite of strong support from workers’ groups and some governments, it has failed to gather the necessary votes as the standard has faced opposition from employers’ groups.

“I think there is a misunderstanding about what an ILO standard would mean,” says Robin Runge, a US lawyer who has dedicated her career to advocating for the victims of domestic violence and who is currently an associate professorial lecturer in law at the George Washington University Law School in Washington DC.

“Nobody wants to see violence in the workplace but some employers think an ILO standard would mandate liability and that they would be pulled into criminal courts – but that’s not what it is about.

“We’re talking about developing standards to protect workers. That’s it.”

Violence in the workplace is a global issue but women are particularly vulnerable.

As a statement by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) puts it: “Anyone can be a victim of violence at work, but gender-based violence (GBV) typifies unequal economic and social power relations between women and men.”

Data shows that some 35 per cent of women globally have been victims of violence. In addition, 40-50 per cent of women in the European Union have experienced unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment in the workplace.

As well as physical abuse, rape, murder and trafficking, violence against women in the world of work can also take place in the form of bullying, sexual harassment and psychological or economic abuse.

Female workers are overrepresented in precarious, low-income and informal work, where the mechanisms to prevent violence and exploitation are all but absent.

Women are also overrepresented in occupations where workers are more likely to be exposed to violence such as domestic work, health and social care, the garment and textile industry and tea and flower plantations.

Even in its own June 2009 resolution which puts gender equality at the core of decent work, the ILO describes GBV as a major global challenge to the goal of equality between women and men.


Instruments – but no Convention to date

So given the breadth, depth and seriousness of the problem, why hasn’t there been a Convention on this specific issue so far?

“There are a number of ILO Conventions that cover some aspects of violence against women, such as Convention 111 on Discrimination, Employment and Occupation (1958) which the ILO’s Committee of Experts has said includes sexual harassment,” says Chidi King, the head of the Equality Department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

In addition, Manuela Tomei, Director of the Working Conditions Branch of the ILO, told Equal Times that there are three ILO standards dealing explicitly with GBV: Convention 169 on Indigenous and Tribal People, which acknowledges the link between gender and ethnic discrimination; Recommendation 200 concerning HIV and Aids in the world of work, which calls for measures to prevent and prohibit violence against, and the harassment of, infected workers; and Convention 189 on Domestic Workers, who are particularly vulnerable as they work in private households and are in many cases migrant workers.

But as King says, “we do not yet have a single instrument that covers the real scope of the problem. That’s our challenge.”

It is hoped that the adoption and implementation of a new standard on workplace GBV would not only help to identify and clarify the true extent of violence against women in the workplace but that it would also help to provide governments, unions and employers with the tools to help tackle it.

Campaigners are also calling for any such standard to emphasis the link between domestic violence and the world of work.

“It is not possible to look at GBV in the workplace without analysing domestic violence,” says Tomei.

As Runge explains, “When women experience violence in the home, it affects their ability to work –they have to take sick days to recover from the violence, it causes stress, or may be the perpetrator comes into the workplace to threaten or attack them.”

The intersection between domestic violence and work was thrust into the spotlight this summer after video footage of NFL football star Ray Rice violently attacking his then-fiancée (now wife) Janay Rice in a Las Vegas elevator went viral on social media.

After much uproar, Ray Rice was sacked from his team, the Baltimore Ravens, but not before a massive public debate took place about whether Rice’s personal conduct should have any impact on his work.

“The Ray and Janay Rice story provides us with a vivid example of the ways in ways in which work and domestic violence are linked. A high percentage of abusers are also employees, for example, so we also have to look at what obligations the employers of perpetrators have towards the victim,” says Runge.

The NFL came under huge criticism for the way it initially handled the incident [at first, Ray was only suspended for two games] but Runge says it is important to acknowledge the complexities surrounding intimate partner violence and work. “The NFL is trying to do the right thing. Most employers are – but they just don’t always know what that is. Employers must send the right message.”


Positive developments

There have been a number of positive developments in the fight against GBV in the workplace over the years.

This September, Americans marked the 20th anniversary of the passage of the Violence Against Women Act into law.

It has had a significant impact on reducing domestic violence – reported incidents of which have reduced by 64 per cent since 1993 – and has been reinforced at a state level by a number of laws. US states such as California, New York City and Illinois, for example, have all enacted laws that provide victims of domestic violence and sexual assault with varying safeguards including time off work and the prohibition of employment discrimination related to the violence.

And Australia, where every week, one woman dies as a result of domestic violence and almost 30 per cent of female workers have experienced domestic violence, more than one million workers are now covered by collective bargaining agreements containing domestic violence clauses.

In India, where a spate of horrific attacks against women has garnered international headlines, the government recently announced plans to “widen definition of ’sexual harassment’ and ’workplace’ to make working conditions even more conducive for women."

And in South Africa, amendments to the Employment Equity Actin August have made it easier for employees to file complaints about sexual harassment or gender discrimination.

So given all this momentum, will this finally be the year that the ILO takes forward a new Convention to protect female workers from violence?

Maybe. As King tells Equal Times, there have been positive signals from some governments such as Canada, Cuba, Germany, India and the US.

However the major challenge now is getting employer representatives on board and convincing them that GBV in the workplace isn’t simply a matter for piecemeal national legislation.

According to Tomei, employers’ support for the Convention makes sense: “No single employer can believe that an atmosphere dominated by fear is good for business”.

In fact, the cost of workplace violence isn’t just borne by the victim. From absenteeism to the destruction of workplace property to the impact of court cases and a company’s reputation, employers pay a significant cost.

“Ignoring violence against women costs employers hundreds of millions every single year,” says Runge. “In fact, it costs more to ignore the problem than it does to address it. So we have to get that message out there.”

The number of competing items at the ILO Governing Body means that despite the compelling arguments, there is a risk that the discussion will be retained for a subsequent session.

But whatever happens, the issue of violence against working women has finally been given the attention it deserves.

“Ultimately, the question for the ILO Governing Body is simple. Do we continue to tolerate gender-based violence in the world of work or not,” says King. “If the answer is no, then I think what needs to be done is pretty clear.”