Posted by Estefania Murray

ILO passes new Convention on violence and harassment at work

History is made’! announced the ILO on June 21, when the annual session of the International Labour Conference adopted a new ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work along with an accompanying Recommendation. Estefania Murray takes a closer look at the scope of new Convention 190 and what needs to happen next.

Across our projects, we commonly find that sexual harassment is not fully understood, or unwanted behaviour is not taken seriously enough. In a supply chain context, it is rarely reported through audits and it is rarely flagged in due diligence for project and DFI finance. Fear of reprisal by workers is a key problem, with workplaces often being characterised by a lack of appropriate grievance mechanisms, and failure to make workers aware of avenues to raise complaints.

Women are most affected by harassment in the workplace, but migrant status, race, national origin and gender identity may all be triggers for abusive treatment. A recent study in the apparel industry in Vietnam, found that over 40% of 763 factory workers interviewed reported having experienced some form of violence or harassment in the previous year. The new Convention recognizes that women are disproportionally affected and its implementation is built on a gender-based approach. The Convention and Recommendation recognise, however, that harassment can take many forms and take a broad approach.

Harassment broadly defined

The Convention defines the term “violence and harassment” as “unacceptable behaviours and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment”. The definition covers threats as much as actions, and takes into account those acts not only intended to have a damaging purpose, but also those which have that effect or are likely to result in harm. It is also notable that harm is broadly defined. The Convention also goes further and recognizes that domestic violence may have an impact for victims in the world of work and that economic independence is necessary for victims to break free from these situations of violence.

From the workplace to the world of work

The Convention applies to the world of work, not simply the workplace. This takes the coverage of the Convention beyond the scenarios normally provided for in national legal frameworks. Generally, national law protects only those who are in a formal employment relationship. But more and more, these relationships are being redefined. For example, the existence and recognition of more flexible working arrangements, or tax incentives for businesses that employ youth, which gives riseto a large number of training roles and apprenticeships. But Convention 190 includes all workers including “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”. Public sector workers are also often covered by a different set of laws than private sector workers, and this Convention would apply to both sectors equally.

Most notably, the Convention also applies to workers in the informal sector. Informal workers are often those least protected against harassment, working with clients without a support system or even being subjected to abuse by authorities, when for example, women are forced to pay sexual favours in exchange for permission to operate their small businesses in the streets.

In another notable provision, the Convention covers travel arrangements and commutes, and also applies to new digital and remote working environments, by stating that harassment may occur “through work-related communications, including those enabled by information and communication technologies”. This will allow the text to remain relevant, even as the future of work changes the physical workspace we occupy.

Action by governments and employers

Like all ILO Conventions, the formal text of C190 is aimed primarily at governments and requires them to seek to end violence and harassment at work by providing for:

  • prevention – by prohibiting violence and harassment, raising awareness and providing for training on the issue,
  • protection against it – by providing for enforcement and monitoring mechanisms,
  • remediation – by ensuring access to resolution mechanisms both in the workplace and the courts and support for victims, establishing sanctions and ensuring effective investigations and inspections.

The associated Recommendation describes what each of these phases should look like and serves as a guide – offering governments measures that may be incorporated into their national legal framework to mitigate the risks of violence and harassment.

For employers, the Recommendation also gives more detail about what potential workplace policies should look like, for example, providing for confidentiality and protecting those who come forward with claims. It also recommends that employers should conduct risk assessments, taking into account different actors that may be involved, such as clients and customers, and situations that may give rise to violence and harassment. The Recommendation additionally encourages employers to take into account and address the fact that certain sectors or occupations may have increased risks, such as night work or hospitality services, and that certain workers, such as women and migrant workers, may be at greater risk.

Much work still to be done

While the broad scope of the Convention is promising, there are a number of steps that still need to be taken. For the Convention to become binding, States must ratify it and incorporate it and then incorporate it into their national legislation. Also, they will need to provide tools for its implementation, through new pieces of legislation and resources, collective bargaining agreements or by amending laws already in place, for example, occupational safety and health or non-discrimination regulations. Currently, 59 countries do not have any legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. It will take continued work from governments, business, workers and civil society to make this Convention a reality for all. The Convention will enter into force 12 months after two ratifications have been registered before the ILO Director-General.

Considering the content of the Convention and the Recommendation more widely, it should be welcomed in the context of the SDGs, which set a target the promotion of safe and secure working environments. Further, the content and impetus from the adoption should be used by businesses seeking to understand and address gender-based human rights impacts and devise appropriate responses.

Photos courtesy of ILO