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Workers, unions and activists are meeting in Geneva to push for strong global protections against gender-based violence at work.
By Lisa McGowan, Director of Equality and Inclusion, Solidarity Center
For many people, one of the most puzzling aspects of our #MeToo moment is how sexual harassment could have occurred for long at so many workplaces. Why the silence?
Whether it’s Bangladesh garment workers bullied by bosses who tell them “women are worthless,” Kenyan domestic workers sexually assaulted behind the closed doors of their employers’ homes, or office staff in the United States groped by their co-workers, many targets of gender-based violence fear speaking out.
They are afraid of losing jobs they need because they are the only ones supporting their families. Or because they know retaliation by a powerful employer can ensure they never work again in their field.
Few laws exist in any countries that address gender-based violence at work. And those that do are not enforced.
A study on violence and harassment at work found that 20 of 80 countries surveyed had no laws to protect workers from retaliation if they reported sexual harassment, and 19 did not even have a legal definition of sexual harassment at work.
But there is a way forward.
Hundreds of workers, their unions and human rights allies are at the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Geneva this week and next, where they are pushing for a global rule that includes include strong protections against gender-based violence at work.
If the United Nations passes the standard (or “Convention” as it is called), workers everywhere could have access to a binding international standard covering gender-based violence at work.
It’s important to recognize that gender-based violence at work is not only about sexual assault or harassment. Bullying, verbal abuse, stalking and threats within a gendered context all may be gender-based violence at work.
What’s more, gender-based violence is not just the bad actions of a few individuals. Gender-based violence at work is baked into the very power structures that control work and workplaces: in homes, on the streets - think street vendors - in factories and office buildings and hospitals, and up through the international organizations charged with creating economic growth.
It reflects a systemic gendered, and often racialized, anti-immigrant and class-based, power imbalance that enables employers to pay wages that do not support families, ignore dangerous working conditions and engage in - or wink at - violence on the job.
In fact, gender-based violence is one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. It disproportionately affects women and LGBT workers who must often decide between keeping their job and speaking out against violence.
Yet up to now, not enough has been done to prevent it, especially at the workplace.
A binding ILO Convention focused on gender-based violence would support and encourage workers to speak out, work with employers to craft polices to prevent and address gender-based violence, and provide governments with critical guidance in creating national legal frameworks that prevent and redress gender-based violence at work.
Leading up to this moment, unions such as Public Services International with 20 million members and the International Union of Food workers have raised awareness among workers about the issue and offered potential solutions - such as how the violence they experience can be addressed by bargaining collectively with employers.
Unions everywhere negotiate contracts that provide the tools for reporting harassment and outline processes to address it and, importantly, address the power imbalance that enables gender-based violence to thrive.
For instance, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU) negotiated collective bargaining agreements that address gender-based violence and health and safety. SACCAWU has bargained for additional provisions on a flexible case-by-case basis at the company level to take into account the different levels of trauma workers experience.
“Unions are leading the way in eradicating violence against women at work, and the support of a strong international legal instrument is essential,” says Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, which is coordinating the global union campaign for passage of the convention addressing gender-based violence at work.
Passage of a global standard with strong protections against gender-based violence is a triple win for all those now discussing the draft at the ILO: employers, governments and workers.
Because violence is not part of the job. For any of us.
Lisa McGowan is Director of Equality and Inclusion at the Solidarity Center which champions workers' rights.
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