As the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign gets underway, women trade unionists worldwide are building on their momentum to end sexual harassment and gender violence at the workplace.
In Georgia, for instance, the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) “pays huge attention to awareness-raising activities on gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace,” says Raisa Liparteliani, GTUC deputy chairperson.
A key GTUC focus is pushing for government ratification of Convention 190, the International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty addressing GBVH. Over the past year, GTUC, a Solidarity Center partner, created an accessible brochure explaining C190 and distributed it among workers and employers. Together with the Infrastructure Construction Companies’ Association, the confederation developed a GBVH train-the-trainer program for managers and human relations specialists in the industry.
GTUC’s work in strengthening national anti-discrimination clauses and more clearly defining sexual harassment in the country’s labor code has resulted in a big step forward for government ratification of C190, which now is in a high-level action plan.
“GTUC will continue a large-scale campaign for ratification C190, which is an efficient tool to reduce existing gender inequalities in the Georgian labor market and ensure access to equal, decent working conditions for all workers in Georgia, including those working informally,” says Liparteliani.
The annual 16 Days campaign, launched in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL), is now an internationally recognized time to highlight gender-based violence and starts November 25. It culminates on December 10, International Human Rights Day. (Check out the organization’s Action Menu for 16 Days campaign.)
Union Activist Mobilize Around C190
Since ILO adoption of C190 in 2019, union leaders have conducted extensive education and awareness training among members, a process that has mobilized members to confront GBVH at their workplaces through collective bargaining and champion ratification of C190. The convention must be ratified by individual governments to be in force in each country. So far, 22 countries have ratified it, including Albania, Argentina, Nigeria and South Africa.
The ILO, which includes representatives of workers, governments and employers, adopted C190 after women trade unionists and feminist activists worked for more than a decade for its passage in a campaign led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center and other labor allies.
“With this convention, we’re trying to address violence that is geared toward workers,” says Brenda Modise. “It doesn’t matter whether you are a man, a woman, old, young, LGBTQ community or anyone, but we are addressing violence and harassment in the world of work against all workers.” Modise, a social justice officer with the domestic workers union, Federation of Unions of South Africa (FEDUSA), spoke with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast. The episode also features authors of a new book, “Stopping Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work: The Campaign for an ILO Convention.”
On the Solidarity Center Podcast, co-authors Jane Pillinger and Robin Runge share how union women who work at factories, on farms, in restaurants, taxis and offices successfully campaigned for C190 and describe the powerful movement they created with human rights organizations, feminist organizations, disability rights organizations and others around the world. The episode includes a clip from an earlier interview with Modise, who describes her experiences on the front lines of the campaign.
The survey, commissioned by the country’s Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations, found the majority of violence and harassment at work occurs in the informal sector, where women workers are especially vulnerable, working in homes as domestic workers, in markets as vendors and in agriculture.
Recent union campaigns by Solidarity Center partners among agricultural workers in Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia are seeking to end the rampant sexual harassment and violence women experience in crowded and unsafe trucks and other forms of transport they must take to reach the fields.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, women, particularly those in the informal economy, were especially vulnerable to GBVH at the workplace. At the recent ITUC Congress, the Solidarity Center convened a panel of union activists who discussed how the pandemic affected women in the world of work and discussed strategies to increase social protections and expand them to workers who have not previously been covered, especially marginalized groups.
Speaking on the panel, Liparteliani said that in 2022, the GTUC “developed research with the support of Solidarity Center on impact of the pandemic on women in three sectors: textile, service and health care,” recommending social protection with a special focus on gender-based violence and harassment.
Caroline Khamati Mugalla, executive director of the East African Trade Union Confederation (EATUC) and Rosana Fernandes, leader of the Chemical Workers Union of São Paulo, Brazil also spoke on the panel, A New Social Contract for an Inclusive, Equitable Recovery.
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.
During the recent 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, workers and their unions from Honduras to Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Nigeria and Bangladesh made big gains raising awareness about gender-based violence and harassment at work (GBVH) and demanding that their governments ratify the new global convention adopted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) that includes GBVH.
With Solidarity Center support, more than 23 unions, worker associations, and their allies in more than a dozen countries issued statements urging their governments ratify ILO Convention 190. Adopted by the ILO in June, C190 is a global treaty to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work that includes gender-based violence and harassment. C190 will become effective for all ILO members states ILO 12 months after two governments ratify it. On December 17, Uruguay became the first country to ratify C190.
Members of the Nigeria Labor Congress held a series of actions throughout the 16 Days Campaign. Credit: Solidarity Center/Nkechi Odinukwe
Solidarity Center union partners far exceeded the organization’s goal for the 16 Days Campaign: 16 letters or statements of support sent from unions and worker associations to their governments urging ratification of C190 in 16 days.
“Women trade union leaders continue to build on the momentum that led to the votes in support of adoption of C190 by an overwhelming majority of governments at the ILO in June, and now their leadership continues as unions and their allies demand that their governments follow up with their commitment by ratifying C190,” says Robin Runge, co-director of the Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department.
“Only through ratification and implementation can the goals of C190 of preventing and addressing GBVH in the world of work be achieved.”
From Union Hall to Parliament Floor
In campaigning for ratification, union women leaders are explaining the need for unions, employers and governments to adopt the broad definition of GBVH in C190, which reflects the experiences of women and other vulnerable workers.
C190 states that gender-based violence and harassment is directed at people because of their sex or gender, or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately, and includes sexual harassment.” C190’s strong language also covers all workers—formal and informal—regardless of their contractual status and how work is performed, and it covers the commute to work, at employer-provided accommodations and in work-related communications, including information and communication technologies.
For the first time in a global binding agreement, C190 recognizes the right to work free from violence and harassment, including GBVH. Union activists and women’s rights and anti-violence allies also are springing off the global repudiation of gender-based violence and harassment at work embodied in C190 to advocate changes in national laws and policies to address and prevent GBVH.
Solidarity Center facilitated action by union partners around the globe throughout the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (November 25–December 10).
In Bangladesh, for instance, migrant workers joined garment workers to call attention to the connected issues of gender-based violence at work and the rights of domestic workers, rallying together and forming human chains at the Department of Immigration and Passports and other government buildings. Together, they called for the government to ratify Convention 190 and ILO Convention 189 on the rights of domestic workers. Each year, more than 400,000 Bangladeshis migrate for employment to other countries, the vast majority of them for domestic work in private homes, where they are isolated and often subject to harassment and violence with little access to support.
Union leaders from the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) and the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) took their message directly to Parliament. Speaking on the floor of Parliament, Touriya Lahrech, a member of the Moroccan Parliament and CDT leader and Amal Al Amri, a member of the ILO governing body and UMT executive board member, called on the government to ratify ILO Convention 190.
In Kyrgyzstan, where 13 unions signed a joint statement urging the government to ratify C190, a recent survey by the Kyrgyzstan Association of Women Judges found some 80 percent of women workers in the public sector say they have experienced GBVH at the workplace. With support from the Solidarity Center, more than 60 union members and representatives from government agencies, Parliament, unions and employers’ organizations took part in a December 6–7 workshop on gender discrimination (below).
Following the training, the Women MPs Forum, together with MPs, international organizations and NGOs prepared amendments to national legislation covering GBVH at work. The Labor Ministry representative and women MPs agreed that C190 ratification will be an important “umbrella” for further amendments to the national legislation covering the GVBH at work, says Lola Abdukadyrova, Solidarity Center program coordinator in Biskek, the Kygyrz capital.
The National Confederation of Apparel Workers (CNTRV) union in Brazil released a report that found the vast majority of women in Brazil’s textile and shoe factories who took part in the study say they have experienced some form of violence at work, often gender-based violence and harassment—to the extent that “for many women, work is synonymous with suffering.”
“Obviously it was very shocking to us when we received the results of the report to understand the extent of violence at the workplace,” CNTRV President Francisca Trajano. “At the same time it’s a wake up call to do something about it.”
Cartoons, Campaigns and ‘Orange the World’
Here’s a small glimpse of more of the many actions.
The Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, a Solidarity Center partner, commemorated International Day of Violence Against Women by demanding on Facebook that the National Congress of Honduras ratify Convention 190.
SITRADOMSA, a domestic worker union in Guatemala and Solidarity Center partner, held a vigil to commemorate the violent deaths of women. “We also remember women domestic workers who have died violently from employers,” the union said. Despite the fierce opposition of Central American governments to C190 ratification, nearly 10 major union federations and worker associations in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras took public actions to denounce GBVH at work and call for C190 ratification.
Union activists in Nigeria held a gender equality workshop that included a representative from the Ministry of Women Affairs and Nigerian Labor Congress members and attended a candlelight vigil for women targets of domestic violence.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) developed a cartoon campaign poster (below) to advocate for C190 ratification and held awareness-raising campaigns in seven regions, reaching union members in one-third of Tunisia.
The Solidarity Center Gender Forum in Georgia held two one-day workshops across the country, aiming to increase the awareness of municipal workers about C190 and gender-based discrimination in labor relations. The Women’s Committee and Legal Committee of the Georgia Trade Union Confederation also held open offices in Tbilisi, Gori and Mtskheta to increase public awareness about C190 and GBVH at work.
In Jaffna, Sri Lanka (below), Solidarity Center staff joined the GBV Action Committee of the Jaffna District Secretariat who are becoming trainers on gender-based violence at work issues. Jaffna’s GBV Secretariat is charged with creating awareness about gender-based violence at work and addressing harassment-related complaints.
In Thailand, union members staged a public action at a Bangkok train station to raise awareness about the impact of all forms of violence in the world of work as part of their “Stop Violence against Women” campaign. They also urged the government to ratify ILO Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment at work. Train passengers joined the union members in a photo session.
Solidarity Center partner Sitradotrans, the Union of Trans Domestic Workers and Various Trades of Nicaragua, marched in Managua, the capital, calling for ratification of Convention 190 and a world without violence.
The Federation of Independent Trade Unions in Jordan drafted a letter to the government and collected signatures from their civil society and political parties partners to submit to the government and parliament, and took part in the global media campaign calling for ratification.
Solidarity Center partners see the effort as part of a broad and ongoing campaign to end gender-based violence at work.
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