The New ILO Violence and Harassment Convention: Signalling a Shift in Norms and Expectations

By Hester le Roux, Senior Economic Advisor, CARE International UK

On 21 June 2019, the International Labour Conference agreed with a near-unanimous vote to adopt a new ILO Convention to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work. As the focus now shifts to ratification and implementation of this new international treaty, leading businesses are taking a hard look at their own policies and practices and assessing whether they, too, are meeting the new global benchmark for protection and prevention.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) celebrated its 100th anniversary this year.  In June, representatives from governments, unions and employers’ organisations gathered in Geneva at the annual International Labour Conference to commemorate a century of tripartite engagement at this, the oldest of the United Nations agencies.

For those of us working on gender-based violence, sexual harassment and decent and safe work for women, one of the most exciting outcomes of the Conference was the adoption, with an overwhelming majority of votes, of ILO Convention 190: the Violence and Harassment Convention

The result of many years of campaigning and two years of tough negotiations at the ILO, the successful adoption of this Convention means that there is now, for the first time, a globally recognised, legally binding instrument aimed specifically at eliminating violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work. 

The #MeToo movement helped bring to light just how pervasive and damaging harassment at work is; it has become clear that no country and no industry is immune to it.  Yet a third of countries currently have no laws against sexual harassment at work. Where laws do exist, they are often patchy or poorly implemented. Strong and inclusive in its scope, the Convention sends a clear message that expectations have shifted and that deliberate action is now demanded from governments and employers to help keep workers safe from violence and harassment, wherever they work.

A huge milestone – yet only the first step

For CARE, the successful adoption of the Convention marks a huge milestone in our global campaign to make workplaces safe, especially for vulnerable women, including those working in the informal sector or at the outer reaches of complex and opaque supply chains. Women are particularly exposed to being attacked or harassed at work due to deeply-entrenched power imbalances that prevail in many spheres of the world of work.

Much as we welcome the Convention, however, we also recognise that it is just the first step in a long journey towards safer workplaces. Individual governments now need to ratify the Convention, thereby committing to enact legislation that will ensure the standards set out in the Convention are met at the national level and that change happens on the ground.

In some cases, this would only need existing laws to be strengthened; and in a handful of countries, existing laws will already meet or exceed the new minimum standard. But in many other countries, brand-new laws will be needed – a process which can take considerable time. 

Forward-looking companies are not waiting for the slow wheels of the legislative machinery to start moving. Recognising that a real shift is already underway in terms of norms and expectations around keeping workers safe from violence and harassment, they are taking a close look at the Convention to assess whether their existing policies and practices meet the new benchmark of prevention and protection articulated in its provisions.

What does the Convention say about employer obligations?

The Convention creates commitments for governments and does not address employers directly. It does, however, direct ratifying governments to require certain actions from employers by law. For example, in the section dealing with ‘Prevention and Protection’, Article 9 of the Convention stipulates that governments should require employers to:

  1. adopt a workplace policy on violence and harassment;
  2. take violence and harassment and associated psychosocial risks into account in their occupational safety and health management;
  3. identify hazards and assess the risks of violence and harassment and take measures to prevent and control them; and
  4. provide information and training to workers on risks, prevention and protection measures and their rights and responsibilities.

There are provisions dealing with access to remedies and dispute resolution mechanisms at the workplace level; on assuring confidentiality and protection for whistle-blowers, among others. There are specific references to the need to deal with the impact in the workplace of domestic violence; and stipulations that workplace harassment by third parties should also be addressed in appropriate laws. (The Convention does not propose that employers bear all responsibility for preventing and responding to third party harassment – it merely directs governments to clearly assign responsibility in such cases.)

CARE has been working with our corporate partners as they assess what the Convention means for them and to help them identify where their current policies measure up and where further action is needed. Building on our deep experience in supporting women’s empowerment and promoting dignified and safe work in a range of countries and sectors, from garment factories in Asia to agricultural supply chains in Africa, we provide guidance on risk assessment and best practice in preventing and responding to gender-based violence in its many forms.

Engaging with business, supporting best practice

Business Fights Poverty’s Challenge on business and gender-based violence provided us with another opportunity to engage with companies working to strengthen their practice, and to share learnings with some of the greatest experts and most experienced practitioners working in the field today.

Nine months of collaboration has culminated in a Framework for action, and a concise and accessible Toolkit with practical guidance for businesses looking to tackle gender-based violence. Filled with helpful hints and illustrated through up-to-date case studies, the Toolkit will be launched at the Business Fights Poverty event in New York on 23 September.

In the months and years ahead, CARE will continue collaborating with partners across the business and development spectrum to help ensure that the ILO’s groundbreaking Violence and Harassment Convention does not exist on paper only, but that it is translated into more effective laws at the country level and better business practice, leading to real improvements in the lives of workers around the world.

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