On November 25, the Solidarity Center joins our allies around the world in launching 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence. This event highlights the need to end violence against women and girls around the world and pass a global standard to address the full scope of gender-based violence at work.
Solidarity Center Gender Specialist Robin Runge
Solidarity Center’s Senior Gender Specialist Robin Runge discusses gender-based violence at work and how unions and our allies are working for passage of a global standard that would address this prevalent, and generally unacknowledged, workers rights violation.
Q.: What is gender-based violence at work?
Robin Runge: Gender-based violence at work, importantly, is being defined by workers around the world and the International Labor Organization (ILO) through the standard-setting process: It is violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender. This definition is intentionally broad to recognize that people experience a range of behaviors based on their perceived or actual gender or sexual identity. Gender-based violence at work is inclusive of sexual harassment. A classic example of sexual harassment at work is a supervisor or a manager demanding sex from someone who works for them in exchange for keeping their job or for a promotion. This is also a form of gender-based violence and harassment at work. Similarly, a supervisor harassing or physically abusing a male worker who is perceived to be acting female or to be gay. Gender-based violence at work also includes the impact of domestic violence on the workplace. The majority of workers who experience gender-based violence at work are women because of social and economic inequality, which makes women more vulnerable to these forms of abuse and harassment. However, men also experience gender-based violence and harassment at work.
Q.: Why is gender-based violence and harassment at work a worker rights issue?
RR: Gender-based violence and harassment is one of the most insidious and pervasive worker rights violations. In fact, it is impossible to achieve other worker rights goals such as gender equality, and safe and decent work, if we don’t address gender-based violence. Gender-based violence and harassment at work prevents all workers from being able to assert their rights to freedom of association and speech in the workplace and to take part in collective action about wages and working conditions.
We know that the rates of gender-based violence, although they vary from sector to sector, are extraordinarily high. So for example, we know that in Cambodia, beer promoters, who are mostly women, more than 80 percent of them have been sexually harassed on the job. In many sectors, especially where women are the majority of workers, including the garment sector, and the service industry, the majority of workers report experiencing forms of gender-based violence and harassment. Something that impacts the majority of the workers in a particular sector is a core labor and union issue.
Q.: What’s being done to address gender-based violence and harassment at work?
RR: Workers, including domestic workers, precarious workers, part-time workers, street vendors and the unions that represent them began advocating for a global standard to end gender-based violence in the world of work in 2013. Workers know from their experiences that a global ILO standard applies to all industries and all countries around the world, thereby ensuring that workers throughout the supply chain benefit from the same protections. Over several years of a global campaign, led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)—and we at the Solidarity Center were a huge part of this effort—workers and unions were successful in having the ILO place a discussion about the need for a standard to end gender-based violence in world of work on their agenda.
In June 2018, at the annual International Labor Conference, the first negotiations took place among workers, governments and employers on a standard to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The second and final set of negotiations will take place in June 2019.
Q.: How have unions led in efforts to end gender-based violence and harassment at work?
RR: Unions really have been the catalyst for change in this area. And the Solidarity Center has played a critical role in helping and supporting unions in leveraging their collective power to achieve this. Gender-based violence is hidden. As individuals who experience this, women are socially and culturally trained not to speak of it. Women are also often afraid that if they speak about it, they will be be retaliated against, including more physical abuse or sexual abuse. Since many people who experience gender-based violence and harassment don’t speak about it, it’s as if it’s not happening. Moreover, workplace structures can create environments that permit and perpetuate these abuses. Workers coming together in unions and other collective worker action provides a mechanism whereby workers can overcome these barriers to preventing and addressing gender-based violence and harassment at work.
Q.: What can unions and their allies do to ensure ratification of the ILO standard?
RR: We’re in the middle of the two-year standard-setting process during which the ILO has provided opportunities for governments, employers and worker rights organizations to submit comments on draft language and participate in negotiations at standard setting meetings in June 2018 and June 2019. The Solidarity Center has supported our union partners, encouraging them to participate in this process and thereby ensuring that the voices of workers are driving the content of the standard. In particular, participation of our partners has led to the development of definitions of violence and harassment, gender-based violence, “world of work,” and worker that are broad and inclusive of all workers’ experiences, including women workers in precarious, part-time and informal work.
A survey conducted this year by the Kyrgyzstan Federation of Trade Unions (KFTU), including unions representing mining and construction workers, found that laws against child labor in the country are inadequate and implementation is uneven, resulting in more than 250,000 children being subjected to hazardous work as recently as 2014—10 years after the country ratified the International Labor Organization convention for elimination of the worst forms of child labor. The KFTU’s survey contributed to a scheduled ILO review of core labor standards in the country.
“The engagement of underage citizens of our republic in the worst forms of child labor is an urgent problem,” concluded the KFTU.
Through interviews conducted by Insan Leilek Social Foundation in Sulyukta this year, supported by the Solidarity Center, KFTU found that many children in the area began working in mining as early as age 8, to help support their families. These children, says the KFTU, are denied a complete education, suffer “abusive treatment” and deteriorated health because of inadequate medical care and lack of protection by government agencies.
Mubarak, an 11-year-old girl living in Ak-Turpak village, said about her neighbor: “[He] on purpose summons all the neighboring children to work in his rice paddies. In the rice fields they stand up to their knees in water all day.”
The greatest contributor to child labor, says the KFTU, is lack of enforcement of laws in the informal economy and agriculture. Children are most commonly found working in street trading, domestic labor, cottage industries and agriculture, especially the cultivation of cotton, rice and tobacco.
A 2014 medical study cited by the KFTU found that 8- to 14-year-old market workers on average lifted and hauled more than 1,717 pounds per day, while 15- to 16-year-old children handled an average of almost 3,000 pounds per day.
Nearly half of the children in the countryside (48.6 percent) work, according to government statistics, and the jobs are often hazardous. Children in fields are exposed to pesticides and chemical fertilizers without protective clothing or safe-handling protocols. Citing a 2017 report by the Office of Akyikatchi (Ombudsman) of the Kyrgyz Republic, KFTU describes how children engaged in cotton cultivation that year spent more than 90 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday in a bent position, with each child bending an average 9,000 times per day. Children engaged in rice cultivation spent more than 70 percent of their 10- to 12-hour workday with the upper body bent, with each child bending an average 19,440 times per day.
To combat the worst forms of child labor, KFTU recommends that the government create a dedicated state program for eliminating the worst forms of child labor—one which welcomes input from civil society. Other recommendations include governmental monitoring of child labor, increased legal penalties for violation of child labor laws, a government-funded campaign to educate citizens about the harmful effects of child labor and the creation of a coordinating council headed by high-ranking government officials of the Kyrgyz Republic.
The survey resulted from a Solidarity Center training for KFTU affiliates on international labor standards, during which participants developed an action plan for submitting workers’ commentary on child labor in Kyrgyzstan to the ILO.
A global regulation addressing gender-based violence at work is one step closer to reality following a 10-day meeting of workers, their unions and representatives from business and government—but much work must yet be done to ensure its passage.
Participants at the recent International Labor Organization (ILO) conference in Geneva, Switzerland, reached consensus on the need for a convention and recommendation to provide guidance to member states, employers and unions in implementing a global standard to end violence and harassment at work. ILO conventions are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by member states, and recommendations serve as non-binding guidelines.
Momentum for an ILO convention covering gender-based violence at work follows years of advocacy by the global union movement, an effort led by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
Leading up to the most recent negotiations, Solidarity Center partners urged their unions, governments and employers to publicly support a binding ILO convention on violence and harassment at work that includes gender-based violence. Their efforts clearly moved countries such as the governments of Tunisia and Cambodia, which both indicated strong support.
With Solidarity Center support, more than a dozen workers—from Brazil, Cambodia, The Gambia, Guatemala, Honduras, Indonesia, Kenya, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, Palestine, South Africa, Swaziland, Tunisia and Zimbabwe—participated in the conference. Several took lead roles in the negotiations as part of the workers’ group, including sisters from Kenya and Zimbabwe who ensured gender-based violence remained the focus of discussions.
Violence and Harassment at Work Violates Basic Human Rights The discussion included defining violence and harassment and assessing whether the final outcome should be a binding convention and a recommendation or only a recommendation.
Marie Clarke Walker, secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress, represented the workers’ group. In committee negotiations among workers, employers and government representatives, Walker stated that violence and harassment at work constitutes a serious human rights violation, one that is incompatible with decent work, and one that impinges on the ability to exercise other fundamental labor rights.
Violence and harassment at work affect all occupations and sectors of the economy, including formal and informal work settings, Clark said. She also linked the importance of the negotiations to the current moment, including the #Metoo movement which has demonstrated the prevalence of violence and harassment at work and how it is both tolerated and endured, including by an especially high percentage of women seeking to obtain or maintain employment.
Walker also noted that while violence and harassment affects everyone at work, not everyone is affected in the same way nor on the same scale. Specifically, women and gender nonconforming people experience violence and harassment in disproportionate numbers, underlying the need for the gender dimensions of violence and harassment to be addressed in the instruments.
Countries Confirm Support for GBV at Work Convention Representatives of several country members, including the European Union and its member states, confirmed their support for development of an effective ILO convention and emphasized that it must promote a gender-responsive approach, focus on prevention and enforcement measures, and improve protections for victims from intimidation and further assault.
The governments of African countries and Mexico also expressed support for a convention and recommendation. Speaking on behalf of the Africa group, the government of Uganda said a convention would leave no doubt about the international community’s commitment to influence domestic legislation.
Mexico’s representative observed that while both women and men were subject to harassment in the workplace, women were experiencing a higher vulnerability due to unfavorable labor market conditions. Further, international legal instruments should seek a general empowerment of women in the workplace, including with regard to sustainable development.
Employers do not want to see violence and harassment in the workplace, said Alana Matheson, the employer’s representative and deputy director of Workplace Relations at the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Matheson noted that everyone has responsibilities for preventing violence and harassment as well as a right to work in an environment free from violence and harassment.
With the ILO’s final negotiations set for June 2019, workers, unions and our allies will be looking to build on the successes of this year’s committee meeting and negotiations to ensure the strong support by employers, member countries and workers for the need to prevent and address violence and harassment at work results in an inclusive convention and recommendation.
The final convention and recommendation must include a broad definition of violence and harassment, one that includes gender-based violence and an inclusive definition of worker and work where employers, member states and unions share obligations and responsibilities to prevent and address violence and harassment.
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center senior gender specialist, participated in the ILO conference.
On a warm, dusty day on the Deccan plateau in April 1994, I joined Kailash Satyarthi’s Bharat Yatra, (Indian Journey), a group of 150 child labor activists part-way through its march from the southern tip of India to the heart of New Delhi, where it would arrive five months later. I didn’t realize it then, but I was witnessing the prototype of the movement that Kailash would take to a global scale four years later, and result in the biggest single step forward in history in the cause to abolish child labor.
It was hard to visualize 24 years ago that these initial attempts to mobilize masses of people behind a broad social movement would build to this moment today—a 20th anniversary commemoration at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual Conference in Geneva of the Global March, which ushered in ILO Convention 182 aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
ILO conventions set a global standard for labor rights that UN member countries are expected to adopt and enforce. Not all countries are willing to do so. But Convention 182 is now the most ratified convention in ILO history, with 181 signatory countries. As one diplomatic observer in the early 1990s said to me, looking at the burgeoning activity in India, “Kailash has built a movement—now he needs to build an organization.”
Build one he did. The Global March Against Child Labour was formed 20 years ago specifically to mobilize people worldwide to lobby for adoption of Convention 182. And finally recognizing his decades-long campaign to abolish child labor, the Nobel Committee awarded Kailash the Peace Prize in 2014.
At the commemoration this week, attended by hundreds of delegates from governments, employers and trade unions, Kailash was joined by ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, representatives of workers’ and employers’ groups, and two very special guests: Basu Rai, a former child laborer who, as a 9-year-old, was one of the original marchers who came to Geneva 20 years ago, and Zulema Lopez, a former child farm worker in the United States, who is now earning a university student.
Opening the program, Ryder noted to Kailash, “I personally remember the moment, the incredible moment 20 years ago, when you led children from around the world into the ILC to press for Convention 182.” He pointed out that even though child labor has been reduced by tens of millions since that time, 152 million children are still working, with practically no reduction in the 5–11 year age range. Indeed, hazardous child labor for that age cohort has actually increased. With the number of children injured and killed each year in hazardous labor conditions, Ryder said, “If this were a war, we’d be talking a lot more about it.”
Basu, in an impassioned address, talked about how he was orphaned at 4, joined a street gang and became a child slave before being rescued by Kailash and his activists. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and climbing on the desks and raising the slogan, ‘No more tools for tiny hands, we want books, we want toys.’ My childhood was snatched away. I’m coming here today, but I’m still afraid. I’m still afraid—and I’m a father to a 2-month-old daughter—that the world is not safe for the children.”
Zulema told the assembly: “I was a third-generation farm worker family. I first went to work in the fields when I was 7. I missed school. It was normal for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, put on a T-shirt, and work for hours in the hot sun, my back aching from carrying 30 pounds of cucumbers.”
In winding up the event, Kailash reminisced, “I remember that day when I walked in with the core marchers of the Global March who were allowed to come into the ILO, which was the first time in history the ILO opened its doors to the most exploited and most vulnerable… We were marching from exploitation to education.”
While there has been progress, much work needs to be done to eliminate child labor, as envisioned by the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, by 2025.
“Child labor is not an issue that will be solved by someone else; it’s up to you personally,” said Kailash. “It’s urgent. The childhood of children today can’t wait. And you have to believe it’s possible. It’s personal, it’s urgent, it’s possible.”
Timothy Ryan is the Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour and the Asia Regional Director for the Solidarity Center.
Released today, the two-minute video highlights the structural foundations of gender-based violence at work, a systemic gendered imbalance between employers and workers that enables employers to get away with unsafe working conditions and other worker abuses. Although gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world, not enough is done to prevent it, especially at the workplace.
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