For more than 10 years, union women who work at factories, on farms, in restaurants, taxis and offices campaigned for an international treaty to end gender-based violence at work. In 2019, they achieved a huge success when the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 190 to end violence and harassment at work.
Authors of a new book share these women’s stories on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast and describe the powerful movement they created collaborating with human rights, feminist, disability rights and other organizations around the world.
“These are garment workers, domestic workers, agricultural workers from all over the world, and have been told their whole lives, ‘Well, you can’t do that. You can’t negotiate a global treaty.’ It’s absolutely false.”
Along with Runge and Jane Pillinger, co-authors of “Stopping Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work: The Campaign for an ILO Convention,” the episode highlights South African union activist Brenda Modise, who describes her experiences on the front lines of the campaign
“The thing about this convention is that it brings women together across the world, irrespective of your age, irrespective of your culture, irrespective of all the things. It doesn’t matter whether you speak English, you speak Portuguese, you speak French, it brings us together. As soon as you say C190, it brings women together and it makes a force,” says Modise.
“One of our main conclusions is that really remarkable things happen when women stand in their own power,” said Pillinger.
Adds Runge: “Only through collective action with freedom of association and collective bargaining is it really possible to truly prevent and eradicate gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work.”
Unions in Sri Lanka are urging the government to follow through with its promise to ratify a global treaty to end gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work by March 2022.
The Sri Lanka Trade Union Movement for the Ratification of ILO C190 in Sri Lanka, comprised of 17 trade union leaders from the public and private sectors, held a press conference in recent days to call out the government for deliberately delaying the ratification process.
International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) is the first international treaty that addresses violence and harassment at work. The ILO adopted it in 2019 during its annual meeting in Geneva.
“There is no point in raising your hand in Geneva, only to lower your hand in Sri Lanka,” Saman Rathnapriya, chairman of the Government Nursing Officers Association said at the press conference.
“Create a proper working environment in the country. A conducive working environment does not exist in this country.”
Union leaders noted that Sri Lanka’s Labor Minister Nimal Siripala De Silva had promised ratification by March 2022 during a March 2021 Women’s Day event organized by the National Union of Seafarers Sri Lanka (NUSS), and in numerous other public venues.
In June 2019, the International Labor Organization adopted Convention 190, along with Recommendation 206, the first global binding treaty to address gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work. The treaty calls on governments, employers and unions to work together to confront the root causes of GBVH, including multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, gender stereotypes and unequal gender-based power relationships.
Women trade unionists and feminist activists campaigned for more than a decade to make this historic victory possible, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, the Solidarity Center and other labor allies. One year later, women from around the world who led the fight reflect on what has changed in the last year, discuss their current plans to ensure ratification and implementation of C190/R206, and envision the changes necessary to end GBVH in the world of work.
“We are commemorating the one-year of the passage of Convention 190, a vitally important convention that addressed one of the most pressing issues facing workers, violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Rosana Fernandes, at the Secretariat of the Committee to Combat Racism of CUT in Brazil. C190 “has translated into many victories—it has opened new areas of dialogue and negotiation for local unions with employers in their collective bargaining agreements, ranging from use of bathrooms to verbal abuse.” (See more videos with union activists on C190 here.)
Creating Space to End the Culture of Silence and Create Change in the Workplace
Since C190’s adoption by governments, employers and worker representatives one year ago, unions have conducted extensive education and awareness training among members, a process that has mobilized members to confront GBVH at their workplaces through collective bargaining.
“The Nigerian Labor Congress has strategically mainstreamed Convention 190 into all programs, activities and events to popularize and continuously sensitize our members and all workers,” says Mercy Okezie, chairperson of the NLC Women Commission.
The NLC has undertaken actions, including “media campaigns, advocacy and engagement with the government,” says Rita Goyit, head of the NLC Women and Youth Department and Secretary of National Women Commission. “There is increased outcry against gender-based violence. People are also ready to speak out to condemn such actions.”
In Indonesia, “many trade unions have also initiated keeping records of cases and victims of violence and harassment in the world of work, says Sumiyati, chairperson for Women and Children’s Affairs at the National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner. “Another positive thing we have identified is that some companies, through their management, join our forces in campaigning for the elimination of all forms of violence and harassment in the world of work.”
“We have seen changes in the way some unions have negotiated their collective bargaining agreements,” says Rose Omano, national chair at the Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya. The union is planning to push for negotiations with employers “so that we can have a modern collective bargaining agreement that talks about GBV at the workplace. It is also very important for us to educate women, educate men, educate young girls and boys on the effects of gender-based violence on the workplace.”
“We are working on an education campaign with print materials and social media information to empower the working class and our members to stand up against violence and harassment,” says Francisco Xavier Santana, director of Bahia Domestic Workers Union.
Cida Trajano, president of the CNTRV national garment workers federation in Brazil, says “we have worked to build the capacity of workers, women and men, to confront and prevent gender-based violence in the world of work, and included these demands in our negotiating platforms. We are organizing to hold employers accountable for their responsibility to prevent and eradicate GBVH.”
“When we address gender inequality and violence as union issues, it means we, as women, can set an agenda in our organizations, in our collective bargaining agreements and in our political advocacy,” says Cassia Bufelli, vice president of the UGT confederation in Brazil.
COVID-19 Highlights Connection Between Violence at Home and Work
Many sisters from Solidarity Center partner unions reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that it has left women in particular more vulnerable to GBVH, including the impact of domestic violence on the workplace.
“Gender-based violence has increased to the extent that in the first eleven days of the COVID-19 lockdown, we had 700 cases of gender-based violence, ” says Fiona Magaya, gender coordinator for the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
C190/R206 explicitly recognized the profound impact of domestic violence in the workplace, and calls on governments and employers to address its impact on worker safety, dignity and health and its broader effects on the full and equal participation of women in the economy and society.
Women—the primary targets of domestic abuse—have struggled to protect themselves and their children, often while attempting to continue working or weathering recent unemployment in an unsafe home. For many women around the world, including child care workers, in-home healthcare workers, cleaners and other domestic workers, as well as many small enterprise handicrafters, a home already was their workplace.
“We need to ensure all our sisters and brothers and comrades can work free from violence,” says Andrea Morales Perez, secretary general of FETRADOMOV, a domestic worker union in Nicaragua. “This pandemic has left us even more vulnerable, and suffering even more rights violations—and highlights the importance of the work of domestic workers.”
“GBVH is so common that it has come to be seen as a normal part of our work or something that should not be questioned. Domestic workers are more exposed and vulnerable to violence at work than those in some other sectors for reasons including: asymmetrical power relationships, isolation, under-recognition of this occupation as work, and insufficient, ineffective legal protections,” says Maria Isidra Llanos, co-secretary general of SINACTRAHO Mexico.
“We face growing violence in the workplace in our society, especially in the context of the COVID crisis,” says Marcia Viana, secretary general of Sorocaba Garment Workers Union in Brazil. “In São Paulo, we are launching a campaign with all the unions in our state to combat violence against women, to create a moment to engage workers and employers to end violence in our workplaces and our society.”
Says Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Co-Director Robin Runge: “By raising broad awareness of the intricate connection between domestic violence and violence in the world of work, this unprecedented crisis offers a significant opportunity for the type of education and awareness-raising among among governments, employers and the broader public that can ensure the right to a violence-free workplace, one that is protected under international law.”
Unions Urge Ratification of C190 Around the World
Just as women trade unionists led the struggle to win C190/R206, they are now at the forefront of the struggle to ensure governments widely ratify and implement its framework. Uruguay recently became the the first country to officially ratify C190, with several others expected to do so in the coming months. Women trade unionists have been pushing governments around the world to ratify C190/R206.
“We urge our government to ratify, implement, and enforce Convention 190 on its one-year anniversary,” says Silma Perez, president of SINTRAHO in Honduras. “We are domestic workers and must defend our rights,” states Miriam Sanchez, also of SINTRAHO.
“Convention 190 is an important tool for us to be able to denounce abuses, the Brazilian government must ratify this convention,” says Luiza Batista, president of FENATRAD, Brazil. “The struggle continues.”
“This is especially important for us as women workers, who face constant harassment and violence, we need ratification in Paraguay, and we need real enforcement and implementation,” says Marcia Santander, Secretary General of SINTRADESPY in Paraguay.
“We as trade unions must do everything to ratify C190 and to eradicate violence at the work. Our workers deserve protection.”
“In C190, we find the mechanisms that will enable us prevent and and defend workers against violence and harassment. Up with women! Together we will win!” says Selfa Sandoval, SITRABI Izabal banana workers union in Guatemala. Sandoval is also coordinator for Gender Equality of the Latin American Coordinating Body of Banana and Agricultural Unions (COLSIBA).
“In El Salvador, we are fighting to ratify Convention 190, a tool that will help us eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Marta Zaldaña, secretary general of FEASIES federation in El Salvador. “YES to ratification of ILO C190!”
Through education, mobilization and advocacy on a global scale, workers and their unions are taking the lead in this transformative change.
Taxi drivers in Ghana, tortilla vendors in Honduras and Asian domestic workers in countries across the Gulf region—all are part of the world’s informal economy, comprising 2 billion workers or 61 percent of the global workforce.
Although informal economy workers create more than one-third of the world’s gross national product, most are either not covered or insufficiently covered by laws or working arrangements guaranteed to formal workers, and have little power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work.
But by joining in unions or other worker associations, workers in the informal economy can gain the collective power they need to make change, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) study.
“Interactions Between Workers’ Organizations and Workers in the Informal Economy: A Compendium of Practice,” highlights 31 examples of how unions around the world have reached out to workers in the informal economy, improved their working conditions, and supported their transition into the formal economy.
“Most people enter the informal economy not by choice but as a consequence of a lack of opportunities in the formal economy and the absence of other means of livelihood,” according to the ILO’s 2015 Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation (No. 204). “The transition to formality is essential for inclusive development and decent work for all.”
Collective Power for 100,000 Zimbabwe Informal Economy Workers
The vast majority of workers in Africa, nearly 86 percent, depend on the informal economy to make a living.
While globally, more men (63 percent) than women (58 percent) work in informal employment, in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the reverse is true. In Africa, nearly 90 percent of employed women are in informal employment compared to 82 percent of men. Women working in the informal economy are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts, for example, as domestic workers who labor in private homes away from the public.
In Zimbabwe, where the proportion of informal employment is more than 94 percent of total employment (including agriculture), the Compendium of Practice explores how the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), undertook a pathbreaking partnership with informal economy workers to advocate for legal changes that would improve their working conditions and livelihoods.
In 2002, ZCTU, a Solidarity Center partner, joined with the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Labor to form the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA). The association now has 30 territories, each with between five and 10 chapters of 500 informal economy members each. As of 2019, there were 100,000 members in 150 associations.
Market Vendors Harassed, Bullied by Authorities
One of the key challenges informal economy workers face in Zimbabwe is harassment and criminalization of the informal economy. Most informal workers often lack the required licenses to operate, which often cost more than they can pay or only can be procured in cities hundreds of miles from where they live.
As a result, informal workers report widespread harassment and bullying by authorities. In a 2016 ZCIEA survey, 81 percent of 514 informal workers said they have been bullied, with 22 percent specifying that the harassment involved both confiscation of goods and threats of violence. Some 36 percent noted the source of harassment stemmed both from the local authorities and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the national police force of Zimbabwe.
In highlighting the Zimbabwe example among its case studies, the Compendium of Practice points to how ZCIEA has negotiated for and come into agreement with various local government authorities on new approaches, such as reviewing laws to regularize informal workers.
“ZCIEA has increased the engagement of informal economy workers in policy discussions,” according to the study.
Working with partners like ZCTU throughout the world, Solidarity Center provides trainings and programs to help informal economy workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages. We connect workers with unions, legal services and pro-worker organizations to challenge exploitation.
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:
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