Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The protection lotto against gender-based violence in the US

Women in the United States receive vastly different levels of protection against gender-based violence in the work place depending on where and who they are. 

Penelope Kyritsis Cassandra Waters
22 September 2017

My name is Cassandra Waters, and I'm the global worker rights specialist at the AFL-CIO.

Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Can you say a bit about why you think gender-based violence in the workplace is such a prevalent issue in the United States today?

Cassandra: It's a prevalent issue in the United States and throughout the world because the reality is that we still live in a society that has a gendered power hierarchy. Gender-based violence stems out of that system. That's something that affects workers all over the world, but is especially prevalent here in the United States because we were founded on unequal power relationships between men and women. There's a lot at stake in preserving those power relationships.

Penelope: What current avenues of recourse do women have to report sexual assault, or abuse, or other violations of their rights?

There are a lot of protections on the books that a lot of people can't reasonably access.

Cassandra: It's sort of piecemeal. At the national level we have Title Nine and we have protections against sexual harassment – both direct and with regard to a hostile work environment. We have those protections in place, but there's a really piecemeal approach to how much is protected, and a lot of women feel as if they can't access these protections. People who don't have a regular migration status might be afraid to come forward and report, for example. People who are in temporary work or in a fractured workplace might not even know who their employer is or where they can go to report it. So there are a lot of barriers, and a lot of protections on the books that a lot of people can't reasonably access.

At the state level, some states have much higher levels of protection than others do with regard to what sort of behaviour is guarded against. So, I think that – overall – we really need something like an international standard to put together a more comprehensive approach.

Penelope: And what would an international framework to protect women against gender-based violence in the workplace look like?

Cassandra: At the ILO level, it would be something that would be negotiated between governments, unions, and employers to define the best practices. I think it would include explicit protections for workplace violence that is rooted in the gendered hierarchy. It would also have explicit protection against retaliation, against dismissals and other forms of retribution for coming forward and reporting. It would have explicit best practices for how both governments and employers can promote systems to bring workers forward and to protect them from retaliation when they do report. It would also have meaningful remedies for victims.

Penelope: And does the United States have a particular role in advancing these mechanisms, particularly when it comes to gender-based violence in global supply chains?

Cassandra: Absolutely. Obviously, every government should be coming out and supporting the ILO standard. There's a survey out right now from the ILO, asking governments if they support a full convention with a recommendation, or if they just support a recommendation. A full convention is a binding international standard, so every country – including the United States – should be supporting that. The US has traditionally been a strong supporter of that in the past, and we're hoping that that policy continues.

We've seen time and again corporate social responsibility initiatives talk at the problem, but not actually do anything.

But also, there's a lot the United States can do to address corporate behaviour in the supply chain. We have so many lead firms headquartered here that have an enormous amount of leverage over other actors in the supply chain, be they subsidiaries, or sub-contractors, sub-sub-sub-contractors. We have whole supply chains that span the globe, and a lot of the power comes from the United States.

They have the ability to ban such behaviour, they have the ability to bring their purchasing power to bear and demand better standards. But they too often don't. We really need to do more at the US level to directly legislate that they have to do that. We've seen time and again corporate social responsibility initiatives talk at the problem, but not actually do anything. We really need to have better binding mechanisms on corporations to demand that they do that.


Photo from International Ladies Garment Workers Union Photographs (1885-1985) collection. Kheel Center/Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

Penelope: Besides these moves towards an international convention, are there any advances happening in the United States that make you hopeful about how the issue is being addressed?

Cassandra: The stuff that makes me hopeful are the examples of women workers coming together to organise and advocate for themselves. That's really how we're going to end up tackling the issue: by creating that enabling environment where women have the ability to step forward, to share their experiences, to name them, and to define their own solutions.

We've seen great organising. For example, UNITE HERE has done a lot of work with hotel workers and other hospitality workers like casino workers. They're bringing workers forward, creating a space to end the culture of silence, starting to define what solutions look like, and then pursuing things like collective bargaining agreements with employers that include panic buttons in hotel rooms for hotel workers. They're pushing for policies at both the employer level and the city or locality level that would prevent workers from having to come back to a room if they have been sexually harassed by a guest. There are really interesting solutions coming out.

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment written into their deals between retailers and growers. That's really getting into that supply chain issue of the disaggregation of responsibility, and fighting back against it by creating direct incentives for growers to do better.

There's a lot of interesting stuff going on with graduate school workers as well. A lot of the organising around that focuses on the role that sexual harassment plays in women graduate workers' lives, because they're so tied to personal relationships with older professors – professors who are often male. There have been really interesting agreements that have been reached that include the ability to raise sexual harassment in a grievance mechanism with the union, and also work on bringing it forward in collective bargaining.

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