Informal workers are routinely excluded from economic and political decision-making, and their work is systematically devalued and made invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these dynamics and has resulted in skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, bringing a renewed urgency to address poverty, exclusion and precarious work.
Labor leaders, organizers and advocates from around the world gathered on December 2 for a virtual panel discussion of the impact of gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH) on workers in the informal economy. The discussion was sponsored by the Global 16 Days Campaign (coordinated by Center for Women’s Global Leadership), Global Alliance of Wastepickers, HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Solidarity Center, StreetNet International and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department co-director, moderated the panel, which included: Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO); Carmen Britez, vice president, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF); Janhavi Dave, international coordinator, HomeNet International; Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and a SEWA homeworker; and Saraswati Rijal, central committee member, Independent Transport Workers Association of Nepal (ITWAN).
Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO)
Chidi King framed the discussion, citing the themes and issues to be addressed. “As we all know, violence and harassment in the world of work is a manifestation of the societal issue that has deep roots in the continued tolerance of violence and harassment,” King said, “particularly towards women and population groups that too often find themselves on the margins of society.”
Women workers, who make up the majority of informal economy workers in many countries, are disproportionately affected. “Violence and harassment have deep roots in social norms and stereotypes,” King said, “especially around the roles assigned to men and women.
“And as a connection to inequality and discrimination suggests,” King added, “violence and harassment is also deeply rooted in unequal power relations, and the abuse thereof, in our societies, as in the world of work.” Thus workers play an important role in addressing and remedying violence and harassment, including addressing the impacts of domestic violence in the world of work.
ILO Convention 190 (C190) protects all workers and recognizes that for many the workplace is not an office or factory setting, but can be a public space or private. C190 protects informal economy workers, who work in their own homes or the homes of others, and recognizes the impact of domestic violence in their workplaces.
However, many countries’ laws do not recognize homes as workplaces, leaving many workers in the informal economy lacking protection against violence and harassment and without access to social safety nets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers have experienced high rates of domestic violence and difficulty accessing social support services that have been put on hold.
Saraswati Rijal spoke about working with women tuk-tuk drivers in Nepal to build support for women workers during the pandemic and supporting victims of domestic violence. COVID-19 has only made conditions worse, as women workers are forced to choose between their and their families’ health or earning an income and risking being subjected to unnecessary hazards.
Workers in the informal sector “do not have any economic security,” Rijal said. “And moreover, due to COVID-19, they are deprived of their daily wages, and they are also unable to earn their living and sustain their livelihood.”
Carmen Britez spoke of IDWF’s work with the Ministry of Labor in Argentina to develop exclusive protection for domestic workers around domestic violence. Domestic workers suffer not just from not having registered employment, but from also having no protection against violence. Britez said that lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many domestic workers to be shut in with their abusers.
Argentina ratified C190 in November 2020. Britez emphasized C190’s role as a tool to push for national legislation: “We were pushing for this convention so that it could become another tool in changing national law. If we have laws that protect us around violence, we want something that would not only include specific sectors but all sectors at a national level. Because that’s really important for us as women workers.”
“It’s also important to say this is not just an issue facing women. “We do account for the majority of those who are suffering from this kind of violence,” Britez added. “But it also is important for us to let our [union] leadership, who are often men, to let them know that it’s also their responsibility to push for a national law on this topic.”
To underscore the urgency of the issue, Britez shared that during her remarks her center received news of a woman whose employer broke her wrist.
Janhavi Dave spoke of the scale of the problem of domestic violence and its impact on women workers. “According to one of the recent ILO studies, there are over 260 million home-based workers, which is around 8 percent of global employment. This was prior to the pandemic, and this number has only increased,” Dave said. “According to the same study, 56 percent of home-based workers are women. So we’re actually talking about a huge section of women workers.”
HomeNet South Asia, a regional organization, conducted a study on the impact of domestic violence on home-based workers in Nepal, and is conducting similar studies in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. “One of the key findings was that home-based workers faced rampant domestic violence,” Dave said, “which has a direct impact not only on physical and emotional health but also on productivity.”
Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
SEWA’s Sonia George introduced a traditional bamboo worker, who shared her experience as the sole earner for her family, which included her husband and their two children. Her husband, she said, was supportive in the beginning of the marriage, but became physically violent after he was out of work. Sibimol was forced to leave her traditional job and go to work in a latex factory in order to earn a livelihood and escape domestic violence at home.
“This is the experience of most of the women in India,” George said after Sibimol shared her story. “We know that most of these women have experienced domestic violence. One of the statistics states that during the time of COVID, domestic violence has increased 2.5 times. That means women in India are suffering that much more violence.”
Lorraine Sibanda shared how COVID-19 also worsened conditions for women workers in Zimbabwe. “The pandemic exposed adverse challenges for women,” Sibanda said, “because they are performing unpaid care work, domestic care work, on top of providing for their families.” Measures to control the spread of COVID-19 compromised livelihoods and increased economic strain on families supported by the informal economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions also increased rates of domestic violence. “It meant that women and girls were locked down in their homes,” Sibanda said. “They were forced to spend time enclosed with families, and possibly many were trapped at home with their abusers.”
Married and partnered women also faced physical violence from husbands and male partners for refusing to hand over their earnings. “They would be abused physically because they refused to hand over money, which they’ve been working for, to their partners, so that their partners could either go for a drink or use that money,” Sibanda said. She also suggested that Zimbabwe had seen an increase in child marriage. ”There was this rampant trait of people marrying off children in order to gain economically.
“All in all, the pandemic amplified the vulnerability of women and girls,” Sibanda concluded.
In Tunisia, 150 women garment workers self-quarantined in their factory to manufacture desperately needed protective masks, churning out 50,000 a day as the COVID-19 crisis broke out. The South African Clothing and Textile Workers’ Union (SACTWU) reached an agreement with employers to guarantee six weeks full pay for 80,000 workers, nearly all women, as operations shut down. And, undeterred by the limitations of social isolation policies, Honduran women union activists are using social media to demand their government ratify a global treaty (Convention 190) ending gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH).
Around the world, women and their unions are leading the way, recognizing that gendered economic challenges are worsened by the pandemic, which is hitting women and other marginalized groups especially hard. They are spearheading calls for safety and health protection and raising awareness about C190, which provides remedies and tools for governments and employers to address the increase in GBVH at work and home.
C190, which the International Labor Organization approved last year, requires employers and governments to take steps to address and prevent GBVH at home, both when it is a place of work and when domestic violence impacts workers’ workplace performance.
Challenging the View that Domestic Violence is a ‘Private Matter’
One of the most dramatic examples of how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated gender inequalities is the significant increase in domestic violence against women.
In El Salvador, domestic violence has increased by 70 percent. Anti-domestic violence service providers from Lesotho to Brazil are reporting increases in calls from women experiencing abuse seeking assistance, according to Solidarity Center staff. Isolated in their homes—or the homes of their employer if they are domestic workers without access to private spaces—many women cannot even reach out for assistance or otherwise seek help to end the abuse.
COVID-19 also has engendered a brutal twist: Exposure to the coronavirus is being used as a threat to further control partners and family members, who in some cases are being forbidden from leaving the house or even are thrown out with nowhere to go. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and global unions such as UNI and IndustriAll offer resources and guidance about measures unions can take to address the increase in domestic violence resulting from COVID-19 lockdowns.
In Honduras, union activists are posting photos of themselves on social media with signs urging passage of C190. Credit: Promotoras LegalesUnions have long recognized domestic violence as a critical issue impacting a workers’ ability to obtain and maintain employment. Research shows that when workers are affected by domestic violence, it often affects their participation in work, their productivity and achievement of work tasks and targets. Employers often inadvertently blame and even terminate the target of domestic abuse in response to the disruptions caused by the abuser.
A Canadian Labor Congress (CLC) survey of more than 8,000 union members that found 67 percent had experienced domestic violence. Of those, 47 percent say they were prevented from going to work by their abuser and 8 percent lost their jobs because of ramifications from their abuse. Surveys by the ITUC in four countries found similar results. For instance, 75 percent of respondents in the Philippines reported that domestic violence affected their work performance because they were unwell, distracted or injured as a result. One in three respondents (34 percent) who had experienced domestic violence reported that their abuser was employed in the same workplace.
C190 prohibits violence and harassment, including GBVH in the “world of work,” which includes private and public places where work is performed, specifically recognizing that many workers work in their own homes or provide care or other services in others’ homes. C190 places responsibilities on ratifying governments, and in turn duties on employers, to mitigate the effects of domestic violence on workers’ ability to access and maintain employment.
In France, the General Confederation of Worker (CGT) is pushing the government to take action around the increase in domestic violence during the COVID-19 confinement by prohibiting dismissal of all targets of domestic violence and requiring employers to negotiate measures to prevent and protect targets of violence, including domestic violence.
Unions Address Effects of Domestic Violence on Workers
During the COVID-19 crisis, unions around the world are addressing the effects of domestic violence on workers.
“Isolation without violence!” reads a graphic (at left) that the Guatemala domestic workers union, Sitradomsa, posted on its Facebook page, with contact information for those experiencing abuse.
In South Africa, where police have received more than 87,000 reports of domestic violence in the first week of mandated social isolation, the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA) is appealing to the government to increase the number of mobile clinics, both for COVID-19 testing and for treating targets of gender-based violence with a special focus on vulnerable areas, such as densely populated townships and informal settlements. “The mobile clinics should include staff or other health workers specially trained in handling and managing gender-based violence, including providing psychological support for the victims,” the federation says in a statement.
In Georgia, after an employer forced workers to sleep at a grocery store overnight because of the country’s 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew, the Georgia Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) took action to ensure the workers, mostly women, could safely return home. The union successfully urged the government to require employers to provide workers free transport from work, an element taken from C190, which encompasses a broad definition of violence at work that includes the time workers spending getting to and from work.
Women’s groups in Lesotho and unions representing garment workers, nearly all of them women, are working with employers and the government to address the effects of domestic violence on workers during the lockdown as they continue to fight for wage replacements.
The global campaign for C190 ratification also continues, as the crisis brings in stark relief the connection between violence at home and work. “From home, we are still campaigning for the ratification of C190,” read signs dozens of union members and their families in Honduras are posting on Facebook from their homes.
In Nigeria, women leaders in the Nigerian Labor Congress are highlighting how C190 addresses the increased violence and harassment experienced by nurses, the majority of whom are women, and workers who are now forced to stay home in abusive homes. In South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and SACTUW are championing government ratification of C190 through Facebook and other online platforms.
“Protecting workers from domestic violence is a core part of an employers’ safety and health responsibilities and the ‘duty of care’ for their employees,” according to the Domestic Violence@Work Network. “It is also an opportunity to think beyond the immediate crisis so that social partners, including governments, employers, unions and service providers, are part of transformative change.”
‘We Can Emerge from this Crisis Stronger’
In the long run, the impact of COVID-19 will disproportionately affect women’s economic and productive lives differently than men, according to a new United Nations report. “Across the globe, women earn less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector,” according to the report. “They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic shocks is therefore less than that of men.”
Women make up the majority of those on the frontlines of the pandemic—working as retail clerks, street vendors, domestic workers and health care workers, especially nurses, midwives and community health workers. Nearly 60 percent of women around the world work in the informal economy, where they are paid less with few or no social benefits and no reserves to fall back on in times of crisis. They often depend on public space and social interactions to make a living, and now are restricted to contain the spread of the pandemic. Globally, women make up 70 percent of the health workforce where they are literally face to face with the virus.
Women also are bearing the brunt of unpaid care work and housework at home, both of which have increased exponentially as families are isolated together, with children out of school and housebound elderly and ill relatives. Before COVID-19, women were doing three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. In Latin America, for instance, the value of unpaid work is estimated as between 15.2 percent (Ecuador) and 25.3 percent (Costa Rica) of GDP.
“The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for women workers to be a part of negotiations with employers and governments and the need for continued leadership by women to bring an inclusive approach specifically with a focus on unpaid care work, domestic violence and equal pay,” says Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Co-Director Robin Runge.
The UN estimated earlier this year that based on current trends, it would take 257 years to close the gender gap in economic opportunity. Left unaddressed, the impact of the coronavirus will “compound global injustices and inequalities, further marginalizing women, people of color, migrants, informal economy workers, and other exploited groups,” according to the Women in Migration Network (WIMN), which includes the Solidarity Center. The alternative, WIMN says in a statement, is for the world to “emerge from this crisis stronger, more just and more equal.”
“To steer toward that brighter future, world leaders need to think big—and they need to listen to women. Given their many roles as providers, care givers, home keepers, and essential workers in both the formal and informal economy, women, including LGBTQI women, have a multilayered understanding of the impact of the crisis on family, community and work realities that clarifies the breadth and scale of response that is needed.”