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Introducing a special theme series on gender-based violence in the workplace

As the deadline for government representatives to submit comments in support of an ILO convention to end gender-based violence in the workplace approaches, this series brings together voices from the labour movement.

Photo from 2014 "16 Days of Activism against Gender Based Violence Campaign" launch in the Solomon Islands . UN Women/Patrick Reoka/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) 

No one should have to give up their safety to make a living or participate in the labour movement. Yet gender-based violence impacts the working lives of many people around the world, particularly women and girls, at alarming rates.

Globally, women workers disproportionately do not have access to living wages, healthcare and a secure retirement, and labour in unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. Women constitute approximately 49% of the global workforce, but are concentrated in low-income, precarious and informal jobs. New forms of work are often built on old structures of exploitation and discrimination, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality. On top of that, women workers’ access to political and labour organising spaces is often limited by the violence and discrimination they encounter.

Unequal power relations are at the root of violence in the world of work. Gender-based violence both reflects and upholds a gendered power hierarchy. Women are disproportionately affected, as are LGBTQIA+ and gender non-conforming workers. This power hierarchy can intersect with other identities subject to marginalisation and repression – including racial minorities, migrants, and indigenous peoples – to increase the risk of violence.

Unequal power relations are at the root of violence in the world of work.

Currently, there is no comprehensive international standard that specifically addresses violence and harassment in the world of work in all its dimensions. International trade unions and women’s rights activists have pushed to have this addressed by the International Labour Organization (ILO). Labour rights are at the heart of pushing back against gender-based violence: workers need to be empowered to speak out about abuses, hold perpetrators accountable without fear of retaliation, and shape appropriate responses to prevent abusive practices from occurring in the first place.

In 2018, the ILO’s Governing Body is planning to set an international labour standard to address “violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work”. This will involve governments, employers and trade unions from all over the globe coming together to define how to prevent and address violence at work. Trade unions have particularly emphasised the importance of dealing with gender-based violence, as existing ILO instruments have only focused on violence in the workplace in a piecemeal way. This has completely left out the more hidden and insidious effects of gender-based violence. For example, 35% of women worldwide experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime and domestic violence has an enormous impact on the workplace.

In the United States, lost working time due to domestic violence costs the total equivalent of eight million days of paid work every year. Many women report losing their job after they miss workdays to attend hospital visits or court appointments to secure restraining orders. Violence and sexual abuse are often used to reinforce social norms around women’s roles in the domestic sphere and participation in the workforce. Further, the continued devaluing of women’s work makes it difficult for many women to gain the financial independence to escape abusive situations at home. Yet most governments and employers do not have policies in place to respond.

The ILO has previously passed a resolution declaring “gender equality [is] at the heart of decent work”, and has identified gender-based violence as a barrier to achieving global equality. While the issue emerges in other conventions, it does so only in parts: Convention 111 condemns sexual harassment; Convention 169 acknowledges the relationship between gender and ethnic discrimination; and Convention 189 provides guidance on violence against domestic workers.

Violence against women at work is a critical labour issue that is too damaging and horrific to be subsumed under other conventions or to only be addressed among a minor portion of the workforce.

But these conventions are insufficient for addressing many specific forms of violence women face when participating in the labour force: the threats from groups of men as women workers pile in the back of a truck to ride two hours to their factory, the pressure from a manager to have sex in return for being allowed to leave work at a reasonable hour, or the outright violence that may come from her employer or a customer.

Violence against women at work is a critical labour issue that is too damaging and horrific to be subsumed under other conventions or to only be addressed among a minor portion of the workforce. A binding international standard is necessary to fill the existing gap, with a comprehensive and integrated approach to protect workers from all forms of violence and harassment, regardless of the nature or status of their work. All workers must have the freedom to organise, and that includes freedom from violence and harassment in the workplace.

It is essential that workers’ voices influence and shape the content of the future instrument. Therefore, this series of interviews and testimonies will share stories from different industries and countries concerning gender-based violence. As you read these pieces and watch the videos, we encourage you to take action by urging your government to support a new ILO Convention on “Violence Against Women and Men in the World of Work”, supplemented by a Recommendation.

About the authors

The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) is a federation of 56 national and international labor unions, representing 12.5 million working men and women. We strive to ensure all working people are treated fairly, with decent wages and benefits, safe jobs, dignity, and equal opportunities. We give working people a collective voice to fight for social and economic justice.

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) is a Washington, D.C.-based human rights organisation that promotes dignity and justice for workers in the global economy.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is the global voice of the world’s working people. The ITUC represents 181 million workers in 163 countries and territories and has 340 national affiliated trade union organisations.


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