Why We Need a Global Treaty on Sexual Harassment at Work

The International Labour Organization has a unique opportunity to provide protection for working women around the world. Glen Tarman, head of global advocacy at CARE International, explains why a binding convention on sexual harassment is so necessary.

Written by Glen Tarman Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Cambodian garment workers enter their factory in Phnom Penh on October 5, 2017. One in three workers in the industry have been sexually harassed on the job.Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

The story of how women must navigate sexual harassment at work is now, thanks to the #MeToo movement, a familiar one. Reject unwanted advances and find yourself blacklisted from your industry. Report the abuse and find yourself, rather than the abuser, under scrutiny. Whatever you do, wherever you go, find him there, all the time, watching your every move. Get used to having to go to work in a perpetual state of anxiety and dread. Do not dare put a foot wrong.

That so many women have shared their stories with the world is extraordinary. But we must remember that for every tale we hear, there are so many others that remain unheard.

For women in workplaces across the world, harassment and abuse are rife. A study by CARE International last year found that in Cambodia’s garment factories, one in three women staff had experienced sexual harassment in the space of 12 months. Given that 85 percent of garment workers in the country are women, this represents a huge proportion of the workforce.

The #MeToo movement has forced the world to sit up and listen. Now, we have a chance to bring about change worldwide: to broaden the movement and increase protection for women everywhere, so many of whom have no platform to speak from.

And it’s much harder for these women to speak up. According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), three-quarters of the world’s workers are in insecure jobs: either self-employed, without a contract or in unpaid family jobs. The same study found there has been a rise in part-time employment, particularly among young women. For many of these employees, discussing harassment and abuse is not an option. For garment workers, the threat of losing your job is the threat of no longer having an income, of condemning your family to a life of poverty.

The #MeToo movement has forced the world to sit up and listen. Now, we have a chance to bring about change worldwide: to broaden the movement and increase protection for women everywhere, so many of whom have no platform to speak from.

This week, governments, along with the national trade union and employers groups that make up the ILO, are convening at the United Nations in Geneva to debate passing a global convention on sexual harassment. If they go ahead, the world’s first treaty on ending sexual harassment and abuse at work could be in place as soon as this time next year. And that could help protect women everywhere.

Several crucial things need to happen when the ILO meets. The first is that its members must decide to go for both a convention and what is called a recommendation. A convention – being a legally binding international treaty – can be ratified by a country to become national law. This will mean that governments and companies can be held accountable should an individual complain about harassment or violence.

We must have both: a legally binding convention and strong guidelines, as together they are the strongest combination of instruments available for ensuring legal accountability and providing guidance for how legal commitments can be implemented.

A recommendation is a set of guidelines for national action that, on its own, lacks the robustness needed to tackle the insidiousness of violence and harassment at work and is not legally binding. So we must have both: a legally binding convention and strong guidelines, as together they are the strongest combination of instruments available for ensuring legal accountability and providing guidance for how legal commitments can be implemented.

The ILO must also ensure that the most vulnerable groups are protected. While no workplace, group, sector or occupation is intrinsically vulnerable to violence and harassment, some are higher risk than others. People who work alone or in isolated, intimate spaces, such as domestic workers, as well as those who work at night, are more exposed to violence and harassment. Workers in highly segregated occupations – for example, women who work in the male-dominated construction and transport sectors – are also at increased risk.

Workers in informal, precarious and non-standard forms of employment and those who cannot effectively exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are also likely to be vulnerable to violence and harassment.

Bearing this in mind, a convention must define “workers” and “workplaces” comprehensively. Workers who are currently poorly protected against abuse – such as those listed above – need to be explicitly recognized. The informal economy must be included, too.

Unpaid care work, which is overwhelmingly carried out by women and which plays a vital role in supporting economies, could be overlooked. It can be harder to distinguish who the “employer” might be in this situation, but that is not reason enough to exclude it – CARE is currently commissioning research to see if a convention could indeed address this.

The policies and practices of companies at the top of value chains drive levels of violence and harassment across the chains, affecting workers in many countries.

The convention must refer to the supply chains of companies. The policies and practices of companies at the top of value chains drive levels of violence and harassment across the chains, affecting workers in many countries. If the ILO’s agreement does not stick up for these workers, there is a possibility that companies could argue that they do not have responsibility for violence and harassment across their value chains.

Over the past few months, CARE International has been lobbying governments to back the convention. Members of the public have joined us in their many thousands, from Malawi to the United Kingdom, Australia, India, the United States, Ecuador, France and Cambodia.

It’s clear that at the national and international level, our workplace laws are not working to protect women. We need change, and there are growing voices for positive action in governments and businesses.

Now our task is to see that a critical mass of governments and employer groups join to overwhelmingly support an ILO convention that can be taken forward in every country. We need a culture change, we need to shift social norms, but we also need laws and regulations that work for women everywhere.

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