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OPINION: Can a global treaty end gender-based violence at work? With workers it will.

by Robin Runge | Solidarity Center
Monday, 10 June 2019 14:45 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

When working people have a voice, they can ensure the solutions developed to address gender-based violence at work are effective and sustainable

Robin R. Runge, J.D., senior gender specialist, is acting director of the Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department.

Between June 10–21, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is meeting in Geneva to finalize a convention covering violence and harassment at work. The process creating this convention is important: The document is being drafted by representatives of government, employers and—importantly—workers. Working people and their unions have been at the table throughout the drafting process, championing a strong focus on gender-based violence (GBV) and harassment.

When working people have a voice, they can ensure the solutions developed to address gender-based violence and harassment at work are effective and sustainable.

Women in the global labor movement have worked for more than a decade to get to this point. Women like Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers.

“Women were going through serious sexual harassment at the workplace without knowing what to do about it,” she told me recently. “There were no gender champions who would campaign against GBV as compared to now that we are seriously campaigning against GBV at workplace.”

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.

Rose also serves as a representative on the gender commission of the continent-wide Organization of African Trade Union Unity and is among union leaders around the world who have educated, campaigned and lobbied to change these dynamics, at the workplace, in local and state legislatures and at the international level. Their years-long work has been supported by the International Trade Union Confederation and unions and organizations such as my own.

While studies have demonstrated the prevalence of violence against women at home and in their communities, as well as the pervasiveness of sexual harassment at work, they have not explored other forms of gender-based violence workers experienced.

In 2018, women leaders at unions in Cambodia and Indonesia sought to shed some light on this little studied topic by interviewing women workers at garment and footwear factories and engaging them in informal focus groups. These unique worker-to-worker discussions found high-levels of gender-based violence on the job. 

In Cambodia, where union women met with with 83 female co-workers, 48 percent of them said they had experienced gender-based violence on the job. Nearly half—46 percent—said a supervisor or manager forced them to have sex regularly with the understanding that it would improve their working conditions.

Shame, fear of retaliation and job loss prevent the vast majority of women from reporting such abuse. While both men and women can be victims of gender-based violence at work, women are most frequently targeted.

Through the #MeToo movement, we have seen how gender-based violence and harassment can happen at any workplace. But #MeToo also has show us how poorly equipped the laws that do exist around the issue are able to address it.

One reason: The laws, by and large, were never designed by those likely to experience gender-based violence on the job—front-line workers.

Unions today are uniquely positioned to enable workers to overcome workplace structures that perpetuate the skewed gender power relations at the root of much social and economic inequality. 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.

That’s why the ILO discussions happening in Geneva are so exciting: Working people like Rose will be there.