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From #metoo to a global convention on sexual harassment at work

We need a binding global convention on violence and harassment in the world of work.

A hatchery in India. World Fish/A. W. M. Anisuzzaman/Flickr. CC (by-nc-nd)

Labor unions around the globe are heading to the International Labor Conference to demand a new global standard to end violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. This epidemic of unwanted touching, sexual comments, requests for sexual favors and sexual assault happens in palm fields in Honduras, garment factories in Cambodia and hotels in the United States. Violence in the workplace hurts both women and men, but women and workers with nonconforming gender identities experience the highest rates of violence.

Media accounts around the world have cast a spotlight on the systemic abuse made possible by global production systems built on cheap, flexible labor provided by women. Women workers have less power, and so are often unwilling or afraid to speak out about sexual assault, harassment or violence. Many women fear losing their jobs, or public shaming by co-workers or families. Social class, race, ethnicity, migrant status, age and ability can all tilt the power balance further away from working women and toward abusers.

Women workers have less power, and so are often unwilling or afraid to speak out about sexual assault, harassment or violence.

Labor unions can help level the playing field for working women worldwide, because it is possible to stand strong when we stand united. Statistics tell us that women with a union are more likely to raise and address issues of harassment, sexual assault and violence. At the same time, collective bargaining agreements can protect women who report abuses from being fired or retaliated against, yet only 7% of the global workforce benefit from a formal union or worker association.

The most vulnerable workers are those who lack unions and who work in precarious arrangements with little or no oversight or accountability. We can help more workers address violence in the workplace by strengthening the freedom of workers to join or form unions and to bargain collectively. A binding standard needs to address the issues of all workers, including those in the informal economy like home-based workers to the most formal economy workers.

The International Labor Organization recently released research on violence and harassment at work in 80 countries in preparation for the upcoming conference. Twenty countries surveyed had no measures in place to protect victims who reported sexual harassment from retaliation, and 19 did not even have a legal definition of sexual harassment at work. A strong legal framework that defines sexual harassment and protects victims can help workers and employers identify and stop the violence.

Social media has allowed women to raise the visibility of sexual harassment and violence, even in industries with low union density and despite other challenges. The time is ripe for labor unions, governments and employers to build on the momentum of the #metoo, #yotambien, #quellavoltache and other campaigns to improve the safety of all workers in all workplaces. 

The time is right for a new International Labor Organization global standard aimed at ending violence and sexual harassment at work. Years of advocacy from unions and our allies have yielded a commitment to a two-year, tripartite negotiation process between unions, employers and governments. The result will be a new ILO standard, possibly a binding convention, directly focused on violence and sexual harassment in the world of work. Other human rights instruments address gender discrimination or violence in the workplace, yet this ILO standard will be unique because it brings both issues together with a sole focus on the world of work.

Twenty of 80 countries surveyed by the ILO had no measures in place to protect victims who reported sexual harassment from retaliation.

ILO standards are negotiated by governments, unions and employers and are widely useful. Governments use them to draft and implement labor and social policy laws. Employers use them to create a set of best practices that can be used anywhere around the world. Labor unions use them to advocate for better protections at work.

Unions support a convention, which is a binding legal instrument that can be ratified by members of the ILO, accompanied by a recommendation that provides more detailed guidance and best practices. A binding convention is necessary, because of the prevalence of sexual harassment across all sectors and workplaces. Unions are advocating for a standard that would cover all workers from domestic workers to autoworkers. A binding convention will make sure countries have the necessary tools to develop and implement laws, as well as develop systems of accountability so the improvements actually have an impact on workers in all workplaces.

Women and sexual and gender minority workers have suffered because of a lack of legal frameworks and a severe power imbalance for too long. No worker should endure violence because the risk of speaking out is too great. No one should endure humiliations and abuse to keep a job. This month, governments and employers have an opportunity to join with unions to start the process of creating a strong new convention and global standard. We can protect millions of workers, and build a future free of workplace sexual harassment and violence.


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