Precarious work makes women more vulnerable to gender-based violence

That’s why the recent ILO convention on violence and harassment at work is so important. Governments need to take it further.

Radhika Balakrishnan Magalí Brosio
14 November 2019, 2.09pm
Intersectional Women's March against gender-based violence, Pretoria 2018
Image: GovernmentZA, CC by 2.0

This article is part of the 'Advancing gender just economies' series, presented by ourEconomy, ActionAid, FEMNET, Womankind Worldwide and Fight Inequality Alliance.

One of the main consequences of global integration has been the rise in women’s participation rates in paid work. Though some of these jobs are higher skilled ones there has been a trend for women to increasingly work in precarious and unstable conditions. The labor market flexibility promoted by neoliberal policies has resulted in employment and income insecurity. Also, while women enter the paid labor force in rising numbers, it does not reduce their burden of unpaid work, which remains a primarily feminized sphere. Therefore, women are more likely to work longer hours per day than men when examining the time allocated to both paid and unpaid work. Moreover, the heavier burden of unpaid care work that women face limits their time available for paid work, which negatively affects their incomes. Depending on the measure chosen, estimates show that the global gender wage gap ranges from 16 to 22 per cent.

The inequalities and gender-based discrimination that women encounter in the world of work – both paid and unpaid – have serious consequences. In particular, the precarious nature of the work and the uncertainty of continuous employment impact negatively their economic autonomy, making women more vulnerable to gender-based violence (GBV). According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 35 per cent of women around the globe have experienced either physical and/or sexual violence in their lives, and most of this violence is intimate partner violence (IPV). When women are not financially independent, there is a power imbalance within the household, and it is even more difficult for women to remove themselves from risky situations. Furthermore, precarious working conditions often make women more vulnerable to violence at work.

Several human rights treaty bodies – including the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) – protect women’s rights to and at work. Nevertheless, evidence shows that women face violations to their human rights at work every day, including the right to safe and healthy working conditions.

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The adoption of ILO Convention 190 (C190) and Recommendation 206 (R206) concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work at the 108th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) during the ILO 100th anniversary in June 2019 represents a key step forward and a historic achievement for women workers worldwide. These instruments provide a clear set of minimum standards that have been developed with the participation of governments and representatives of employers and workers at a time when instances of violence faced by women in the world of work are being exposed globally.

Recent movements such as #NiUnaMenos and #MeToo have confirmed the widespread prevalence of violence and harassment against women in the world of work, and women have been demanding a definitive systemic response. In this scenario, C190 establishes a global legal framework to prevent, identify, and provide redress in cases of gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Likewise, R206, although not legally binding, offers important guidance for how the Convention might be implemented.

One of the most important features of C190 is its broad and inclusive definition of “worker,” because it explicitly covers those who might be in the most vulnerable conditions (e.g. informal workers). As stated in Article 2 of C190:

1) This Convention protects workers and other persons in the world of work, including employees as defined by national law and practice, as well as persons working irrespective of their contractual status, persons in training, including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants, and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.

2) This Convention applies to all sectors, whether private or public, both in the formal and informal economy, and whether in urban or rural areas.

Additionally, the comprehensive definition of “the world of work” (Article 3) that goes beyond the physical limits of the traditional workplace guarantees the protection of workers in all situations related to work, while providing flexibility to address the new challenges that might arise with the future of work:

This Convention applies to violence and harassment in the world of work occurring in the course of, linked with or arising out of work:

(a) in the workplace, including public and private spaces where they are a place of work;

(b) in places where the worker is paid, takes a rest break or a meal, or uses sanitary, washing and changing facilities;

(c) during work-related trips, travel, training, events or social activities;

(d) through work-related communications, including those enabled by information and communication technologies;

(e) in employer-provided accommodation; and

(f) when commuting to and from work.

This instrument represents a step forward and it is necessary that member states promptly ratify it. However, it has certain limitations. From a feminist perspective, some of the issues that can and should be improved and included in national legislation are:

i) Unpaid care work, in order to provide support to homemakers in charge of care activities within the household.

ii) A wide definition of violence and harassment and gender-based violence, including – but not limited to – intimate partner violence, understanding that it always affects the worker (and not only when it disturbs his/her productivity or the employer).

iii) State's Extraterritorial Obligations, including regulating transnational corporations and free trade zones and taking measures to ensure migrant workers’ well-being.

iv) Governments, diplomats and military personnel can be perpetrators and should be addressed explicitly. Likewise, populations affected by armed conflict, including refugees, internally displaced persons, returnees, and people living in conflict or post conflict settings, should be unequivocally protected.

The Convention must be viewed as a floor and not a ceiling. Therefore, we recommend that a range of actors, in addition to governments, fully account for these existing gaps in the implementation of C190, taking guidance from R206 in addition to other ILO instruments, international treaties, authoritative explanations of state obligations pertaining to legally recognized human rights and recommendations issued by UN treaty monitoring bodies and Special Procedures, national constitutions and key provisions in national law and policy, and practices adopted by businesses that may be even more progressive in certain respects, to improve the current provisions for implementation at the national level.

It is now time for us to both celebrate this important milestone and keep organizing towards a world of work free from violence for all women.

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