“We have to look to our future, beyond winning this convention, to what it means to implement it in our countries and protect workers’ lives, human rights and dignity,” says Touriya Lahrech, a women union leader of the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) in Morocco and delegate to the final negotiations of Convention 190 (C190) at the International Labor Conference (ILC) in June 2019.
As with all international conventions, C190 must be ratified by individual governments before it becomes effective. The ILO requires that two countries ratify the convention before it becomes binding on all member states. In campaigning for ratification, union women leaders are advocating for changes in law and policy to address and prevent gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH).
Women Trade Union Leaders Mobilize Across Africa
Less than two months after the ILO adopted C190, women union leaders in South Africa, together with the country’s Employment and Labor Office and ILO representatives, successfully advocated for inclusion of C190’s ratification in Parliament’s policy agenda. South African union leaders are aiming for South Africa to be the first country to ratify the convention—by December 2019—a target set by Brenda Modise, social justice officer at the Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA).
“It will happen by December 2019 because of all the work we have done,” she says.
The rapid pace with which lawmakers agreed to debate the proposal reflects years of strategic, unwavering work by FEDUSA and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and their dozens of affiliates to address gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace, in their unions and through legislation.
In July, a coalition that included COSATU, FEDUSA and the National Council of Trade Unions (NACTU) created an advocacy roadmap, identifying government offices with which to hold discussions around the importance of ratifying C190. Women union leaders are working closely with women’s rights groups and other allies, who have joined the legislative push and broadened public outreach.
Over the last year, women across South Africa have waged protests and marches to demand the government take action to address gender-based violence, including through the #TotalShutdown campaign, a nationwide grassroots effort in which women labor leaders played a key role.
Much of the focus in South Africa, as elsewhere, is centered on domestic violence, and women union leaders are educating lawmakers and the public on the impact of domestic violence on the workplace, and the responsibility of employers and governments to address it, in line with C190.
In addition, they have been working in coalition to increase awareness of the prevalence of GBVH at work and the need for policy and legislative responses that include the “world of work,” such as when workers are commuting for work or attending work-related functions outside the workplace.
The Nigeria Labor Congress, which ensured its ILC delegation included an equal percentage of women and men, and a woman in C190 negotiations, has prioritized working with the Nigerian government and its allies to ensure ratification, says NLC President Ayuba Wabba, who also serves as president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
In September, the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) hosted members of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU) and representatives from the Federation of Kenya Employers and the Kenya Ministry of Labor to discuss the convention and plans for moving toward ratification in OATUU’s 18 member countries. Employer and government representatives also heard from women workers who described how they have been harassed and assaulted at work because of their gender, and why governments need to ratify ILO 190 to remedy and prevent the abuse.
Uruguay Moves for Ratification
The South Africans will have some competition to be first to ratify. Uruguay’s executive branch this week sent a request to the General Assembly that it ratify both C190 and the International Labor Recommendation on violence and harassment (No. 206). The Uruguayan Ministers of Labor and Social Development signed a commitment to C190 on Friday.
Unions in Bahrain and Palestine Rally for Ratification
One month after the ILO passed C190, Palestinian union members organized a broad coalition to ensure government adoption. Credit: PGFTU
In Bahrain and Palestine, the countries’ major union federations have thrown their full support behind achieving government ratification.
In July 2019, one month after the ILC, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) launched a campaign in coalition with the union of Palestinian women and labor ministries to ensure C190’s adoption. At a packed union press conference in Ramallah, the minister of women and the labor ministry representative indicated their intent to draft legislation to move ratification.
PGFTU Secretary General Shaher Saad said that in addition to campaigning for ratification, the federation will pursue efforts to amend Palestinian labor law to achieve equality for everyone in the workplace and noted its team of inspectors also enforce the Palestinian labor law, including combating and preventing harassment and violence in the workplace.
The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GBFTU) hails the government’s recent initiative to amend the country’s labor code, with penalties for harassment at the workplace, (which doubles if the perpetrator is the workers’ supervisor), and is urging the government to build on the move by ratifying Convention 190. The federation also is connecting the campaign for passage of C190 with its efforts to urge the government to sign ILO conventions covering freedom of association (Convention 87) and the right to form unions and bargain collectively with employers (Convention 98).
Standing Up to Fierce Employer Opposition in Central America
In Central America and the Caribbean, where employer groups from Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama have combined forces to oppose C190, union activists condemned the move and remain committed to advocating for ratification by their governments. In Honduras, the Anti-Union Violence Network already has presented petitions signed by union leaders and members to the Honduran government and Ministry of Labor advocating for ratification, and in coalition with unions, will campaign for its passage.
The FEASIES federation of El Salvador, representing maquila and domestic workers, has joined forces with women’s rights and LGBTQI organizations to condemn employers’ opposition to ending violence and harassment at work and to advocate for ratification of C190. Four major unions in Guatemala—FESTRAS, CUSG, CGTG and UNSITRAGUA—are advocating for the adoption of the convention, after the Network in Defense of Labor Rights in Guatemala engaged the unions in the campaign to end gender-based violence at work. The network also is building alliances with LGBTQI and women’s rights organizations to further strengthen the campaign for passage.
The domestic workers’ union federation FETRADOMOV in Nicaragua is lobbying the government and holding member trainings around the convention along with its affiliate, SITRADOTRANS, a union of transgender domestic workers that has helped elevate the specific vulnerabilities to gender-based violence and harassment faced by transgender and gender non-conforming workers in the informal economy.
Documenting GBV to Support Ratification of Convention 190
In Indonesia, where a recent report found 71 percent of 75 women workers said they had been subjected to gender-based violence at work, unions are building on their education and awareness raising about gender-based violence at work to advocate for ratification of C190.
The National Union of Workers (SPN), which partnered with some 50 organizations and unions in a nationwide campaign seeking government support for ILO adoption of the convention in 2017 and 2019, has shifted its energy to campaigning for ratification, says Izzah Inzamliyah, Solidarity Center program officer in Indonesia.
In May 2019, women trade union leaders in Indonesia and Cambodia released reports documenting sexual harassment, including sexual violence and verbal abuse based on gender as well as other forms of GVBH against women in garment factories. The women led the studies and wrote the reports after taking part in awareness-raising and information-sharing workshops hosted by the Solidarity Center. They will use the information and recommendations to educate lawmakers and others about the need to adopt laws and policies to prevent and address gender-based violence and harassment at work, including C190 ratification.
Union women leaders and their allies around the world who have launched campaigns advocating for ratification of Convention 190 recognize it offers the best opportunity for changing structural systems that feed sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence in the world of work.
Says Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers who was a key worker representative throughout discussions on the convention:
“Gender-based violence is a disease that cannot be treated without an international standard that sets rules and regulations for making sure countries can adopt laws on gender-based violence in the world of work.”
With Solidarity Center support, trade union women leaders from Brazil, Cambodia, Georgia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Palestine, South Africa, Swaziland, Tunisia and Zimbabwe participated in the ILC. Several took lead roles in the negotiations as part of the workers’ group to ensure the experiences of women workers remained central to the negotiations, along with the need for gender-specific, structural responses to address the impact of violence and harassment.
The adoption of Convention 190 culminated a decade of tireless leadership and advocacy by women trade union leaders around the world who raised awareness about the scope and incidences of gender-based violence and harassment at work and its impact as one of the most prevalent and oppressive forms of abuse.
Through cross-movement coalition building with anti-gender-based violence organizations and participatory research on the experiences of women workers in diverse workplaces, women union activists led the successful campaign that incorporated their experiences in developing definitions of key terms, such as gender-based violence and harassment, and ensuring that the convention covers all workers and the entire world of work, including informal workers, the majority of whom are women.
Dynamic women worker rights leaders from across the globe offered a vision for hope, resilience and movement toward an economy and society that works for people and the planet yesterday at the event, “Building Power: Women’s Leadership in the Fight for Justice, Democracy and Fair Work” in New York City.
“Collective power is the way to build justice.”—AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“We are bringing women labor leaders together today who are at the forefront of movement building. They all know one thing—collective power is the way to build justice. Collective power is the way to democracy,” said AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold, opening the gathering, a side event to the United Nations General Assembly meetings happening this month. (Watch the event here.)
In a statement issued before the event, the philanthropies committed to supporting labor organizations and worker groups in their portfolios, backing ratification and implementation of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190 to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment at work, and boost advocacy to support civic space.
The philanthropies were inspired by the women who fought for passage of Convention 190, said Laine Romero-Alston, team manager for the Fair Work Program/International Migration Initiative at OSF. “Out of that inspiration we are committing to you all to support the work moving forward.”
‘Dignity and Rights of Working People, Not Exploitation’
The future of work must be about “dignity and the rights of working people and not exploitation”—ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Discussing a global movement for economic justice, democracy and fair work, women union leaders featured on the first of two panels agreed there is a worldwide jobs crisis—and women endure the lowest pay and worst working conditions.
“Look at the inequalities in workplaces, who is most affected? Women are most affected,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers and the national chair of the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) Women’s Committee.
“We need to work in solidarity together, have alliances, build alliances,” said Omamo who, as an elected member of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity and a member of ITUC–Africa Women’s Committee, is building cross-continent partnerships.
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler urges unions to reach out to young workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Sixty percent of the world’s workers are in the informal economy with no minimum wage, no rule of law, no social protections,” International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow said to the packed crowd. “The employment model is broken down and the future of work must be about dignity and the rights of working people, not exploitation,” she said.
Moderated by Patrick Gaspard, OSF president and former U.S. ambassador to South Africa, the panel also explored solutions for ensuring a future of work rooted in a global economy that works for everyone.
One solution starts with unions themselves: “We need to get more women into union leadership,” said AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler. “We cannot be afraid to fail and experiment and connect with young people by making the labor movement relevant to what they see in their lives.”
‘Elimination of Gender-Based Violence Key to Accessing Other Rights’
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau: “Labor rights are core to all our democratic rights.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Moderated by Solidarity Center Shawna Bader-Blau, the second panel included Libakiso Matlho, national director at Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust–Lesotho (WLSA). Matlho discussed the recent landmark agreement agreement WLSA participated in negotiating that will address the rampant gender-based violence and harassment denying thousands of women garment workers a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho.
Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups, major fashion brands and international worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, negotiated the worker-centered program in August with factory owner Nien Hsing Textiles.
One element that sets the agreement apart from most corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives, she said, is the inclusion of freedom of association. With unions at the table, she said, employers can be held accountable to keeping their commitments.
Worker rights leaders Maricarmen Molina and Anannya Bhattacharjee discussed the structural underpinnings of gender-based violence at work and the ramifications for women workers who suffer such abuse.
“Violence and harassment are part of a continuum of behaviors in many of the systems where we work”—Mariecaremen Molina Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Violence and harassment are part of a continuum of behaviors in many of the systems where we work,” said Molina, the first woman secretary general of a national union confederation in Central America, the CSTS (Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de El Salvador). The CSTS, working with the national federations CONFUERSA and FEASIES, recently won significant minimum wage increases for workers in service, industrial and agricultural sectors.
“We have found that gender-based violence at the workplace is the most corrosive element that works against everything,” said Bhattacharjee, international coordinator for the Asia Floor Wage Alliance.
“It is really difficult for women in those situations to attempt to form unions,” which would enable them to join together to improve their working conditions.
With Global Labor Justice, Asia Floor Wage Alliance this year launched a global campaign, #GarmentMeToo, a movement led by women union leaders to contribute to new international labor standards.
Elimination of gender-based violence is the necessary condition for accessing other labor rights, such as the right to a living wage, such as the right to freedom of association,” said Bhattacharjee. “It is part of a global supply chain where the brands are the main drivers. Their purchasing practices are what causes the gender-based violence. Anything we do, they have to build held accountable in any agreement that works.”
Unions and collective action are key to holding employers accountable and to ensuring workers can exercise their fundamental rights on the job, the panelists agreed. And “labor rights are core to democracies, they are core to making all our other democratic rights real,” said Bader-Blau, closing the event. “These rights are under attack in every single one of our countries right now. And it is on all of us to stand up for worker rights.
“For every woman trade unionist who has ever received a death threat for daring to lead… for every new activist young and old entering the labor movement right now who doesn’t know if she has a place because our institutions have for so long been so male dominated, we see you,” she said.
“We respect and honor what you are trying to do to make our democracies stronger and more just. You are the future and we all of us in this room have your back because this is what democracy looks like!”
The CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies hosted the event, with Dean Gregory Mantsios welcoming the group.
Workers and their unions are starting discussions this week on a global standard that would address violence and harassment in the world of work. They join representatives of employers and governments at the June 10–20 International Labor Conference (ILC) in Geneva, where they are championing an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention with a strong focus on gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment.
“We cannot deny that we have gender-based violence at work, so if we have an ILO convention, we can address it,” says Phyo Sandar So, assistant general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM), a Solidarity Center partner. She says a global convention would enable union activists and their allies in countries like Myanmar to advocate for more protective laws and ensure their enforcement.
“We do not have a strong domestic law for violence at workplace,” she says. “When we make a policy for gender-based violence at work, we need to have international standards to make our own legislation, see how other countries implement it to make a law.” Sandar will be among workers at the ILC, where her CTUM union sisters will be at the negotiating table.
Among women union activists who have championed an end to GBV at work (from top, left): Tourya Lahrech; Alejandra Ancheita; Lily Gomes and Oretha Tarnue; May Joy Guarizo Salapare, Phobsuk Gasing and Myrtle Witbooi; Gertrude Mtsweni; and Saida Bentahar. Credit: Solidarity Center
Final negotiations on an ILO convention covering gender-based violence at work comes after more than a decade of work by women in the global labor movement. Women like Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner.
“Women were going through serious sexual harassment at the workplace without knowing what to do about it. There were no gender champions who would campaign against GBV as compared to now that we are seriously campaigning against GBV at workplace,” she said.
In 2015, as a result of these efforts, the ILO agreed to craft a standard on ending violence and harassment against men and women in the world of work, and workers have been at the table helping shape it ever since. Their years-long effort has been supported by the International Trade Union Confederation, Solidarity Center and unions and organizations around the world.
Workers, Unions: Educating, Mobilizing for a GBV Standard
Members of COSATU were among union members across South Africa taking part in #TotalShutdown day last fall to protest violence against women. Credit: COSATU
Leading up to the final discussions happening now in Geneva, Solidarity Center partners urged their unions, governments and employers to publicly support a binding ILO convention on violence and harassment at work that covers gender-based violence.
For instance, the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC), together with other civil society organizations, helped push the adoption of a law that includes a definition of sexual harassment at the workplace, and designated the Public Defenders’ office as a state body responsible for the enforcement of new legislation.
“Trade unions in the Eastern European region have applied multiple approaches to secure support for the convention,” says Paata Beltadze, Solidarity Center regional gender specialist in Tbilisi.
“Unions increased awareness about the standard-setting procedures and importance of the convention to members; built alliances among civil society and human rights groups at the local and international levels; and organized regional workshop to share experiences, strategies and developing plans for a strong regional networking in the future,” says Beltadze.
Sritee Akter from the Garment Workers Solidarity Federation in Bangladesh, signs a letter to the prime minister urging government support of an ILO convention on gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Inam
In Bangladesh, trade union federations and worker organizations representing garment workers and domestic workers sent a message to the government urging the administration to support the convention. Nine Solidarity Center partner organizations signed a letter to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, making the case for government support for the convention and recommendations.
Omamo, a representative on the gender commission of the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), and Gertrude Mtsweni, gender coordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), worked with OATUU’s gender commission to develop an effective message to urge their governments to ratify the convention after it is passed by the United Nations. Countries are not covered by a UN convention unless their governments ratify it and indicate they are committed to applying its provisions in national law and practice, and reporting on its application at regular intervals. COSATU activists took part in #TotalShutdown rallies last fall to protest violence against women.
These are just a sample of the education, mobilization and advocacy workers and their unions have undertaken in the weeks and months before the ILC.
“Unions provide a means by which working people most impacted by GBV can voice their needs and experiences. In doing so, unions have shown that when front-line workers have a say, solutions addressing deeply rooted problems like GBV effectively address the concerns for those most affected,” she says.
Two just-released informal surveys union members conducted among their co-workers at garment factories in Cambodia and Indonesia:
Solidarity Center’s video on gender-based violence at work is now available in Sinhala and Tamil.
The two-minute video explains the forms of gender-based violence at work, which include bullying, verbal abuse and stalking, systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses.
Workers, employers and government officials currently are debating a proposed International Labor Organization (ILO) convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment at work, and the video ends with a call to action tojoin the campaign.
Women trade unionists in Indonesia and in Honduras and other Central American countries who are tackling gender-based violence at work often start by changing a culture of patriarchy within their own unions, according to speakers at a Solidarity Center-sponsored panel today in New York City.
Alexis de Simone, Robin Runge, Nurlatifah and Izzah Inzamliyah discussed strategies for ending gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Unions in the past only focused on economic issues—gender-based violence issues have never been our priority,” says Nurlatifah, board member of the 341,000-member National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF) in Indonesia. But after she and other union leaders conducted an in-depth research project among women members that showed 81 percent had experienced gender-based violence, “the union tries to mainstream this issue into every activity the union conducts.”
Nurlatifah spoke on the panel, “Gender-Based Violence at Work and Social Protections,” co-sponsored by the Global Fund for Women, one of dozens of parallel events taking place this week in conjunction with the 63rd session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting March 11–22. The CSW, a global policy-making body dedicated to promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women, this year is focusing on social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.
Alexis de Simone highlighted how women in Honduras have addressed gender-based violence in garment factories and farm fields,
In highlighting how workers are organizing and building power to confront gender-based violence in Central America, Alexis de Simone, Solidarity Center senior program officer for the Americas, says years of leadership training among women union members in Honduras’s garment and agriculture sectors has led to more than 80 women becoming union leaders. They now negotiate contracts that address key women’s issues like maternity leave, and in the agriculture sector, have developed a cross-border network that shares contract language that benefits working women.
The Solidarity Center assisted many of those programs in Central America “and now is working with our partners in 17 different countries to support women worker efforts to define gender-based violence at work and to make it a priority with their unions,” says Robin Runge, Solidarity Center senior gender specialist and panel moderator.
Expanding the Campaign to End Gender-Based Violence at Work
The Solidarity Center is supporting training that addresses gender-based violence in 17 countries—Robin Runge. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Women union leaders’ work challenging and addressing gender-based violence at work by focusing first on educating members and shifting union power dynamics that long favored men plants the seed for broader outreach.
Union leaders and members are now working toward passage of legislation in Honduras to address gender-based violence, says de Simone. And in Indonesia, SPN–NIWUF partners with some 50 organizations and unions in a nationwide campaign seeking government support for the ILO convention on gender-based violence at work. Meanwhile, the Indonesian Parliament “is actively supporting a campaign on gender-based violence because of the work the campaign has done to build consciousness,” says Izzah Inzamliyah, Solidarity Center program officer in Indonesia, who also helped translate for Nurlatifah.
Lawmakers would not have even considered such legislation before women across the nation raised their voices to end gender-based violence, she says.
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