A Workplace Void of Violence and Harassment: Creating Safer Working Environments with ILO’s Convention 190

The International Labour Organization’s Convention 190—a legally binding document that took effect last summer—has a bold message: Gender-based discrimination will no longer be tolerated in the “world of work.”

The International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 190 on Violence and Harassment attempts to formalize the process of addressing gender-based violence and harassment in the workplace at the international level. (IndustriALL)

In 1992, Anita Hill called workplace sexual harassment “a form of violence against women as well as a form of economic coercion” that affects all women. “Harassment crosses lines of race and class,” she continued. “In some ways, it is a creature that practices ‘equal opportunity’ where women are concerned.”

Two decades later, sexual harassment still pervades workplaces worldwide. Global capitalism has enabled more women to gain their own income, supporting their families without having to rely on a partner and reducing opportunities for economic abuse. For this reason, some argue, feminists should embrace capitalism. But realistically this economic structure has no intent for social change—for within it, the systems of power that have historically abused women remain.

Today, 50 percent of women face the risk of sexual harassment, violence and discrimination in the workplace in their lifetime, according to the Center for Women’s Global leadership. For many, aspects of their social identity make them more susceptible to this form of workplace discrimination.

Despite social and legal movements to create spaces where survivors can share stories and receive support, victims of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) still face obstacles and risk when reporting GBVH in the workplace. In many countries, harsh social implications remain for survivors who speak out, while others are not provided legal protection. Still others have faced difficulties when attempting to address or prevent GBVH due to poor implementation of laws and policies, alongside societal beliefs of gender roles.

But a global solution may be on the horizon: the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 190 (C190) on Violence and Harassment, legislation adopted in 2019 which attempts to formalize the process of addressing GBVH at the international level. Described as “the first international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work,” C190 officially took effect in June 2021. It addresses the critical issue of gender-based discrimination in the world of work, which has often been left out in other provisions on violence and harassment despite its key role in daily work-life.

Numerous reports have highlighted the pervasiveness of violence and harassment at work and the negative impacts on the physical, mental, emotional, social and economic well-being of those affected. It costs companies as well as survivors, affecting the overall well-being of their workers, enterprise productivity and profitability. ILO’s C190 provides for the first time a singular concept of violence and harassment and “requires member states to adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to prevent and address such behaviors in the world of work.”

Together with Recommendation No. 206 (R206), C190 establishes a minimum standard for the right to work free from violence and harassment, recognizing it as a human rights violation. It provides a common framework for action and provided detailed guidelines for addressing violence and harassment.

Article One of Convention 190 defines violence and harassment in the world of work as “a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm”—which includes GBVH. Gender-based violence and harassment is then defined as “violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender, or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately.” This includes sexual harassment.

The Red Dot Foundation is among several NGOs with consultative status at the UN Economic and Social Council  that have endorsed C190 and has contributed to working towards its global ratification. The NGO aims to make cities safer for all by encouraging equal access to public spaces for everyone, especially women.

Camila Gomide, programs coordinator at Red Dot, spoke with Ms. about the importance of C190 and her current campaign projects to increase awareness of the convention in hope to increase ratification by member states.

Madison Gusler: What makes ILO Convention 190 different than other conventions on violence and harassment in the workplace?

Camila Gomide: The ILO has approved several different conventions on the prevention of gender-based violence and harassment. However, C190 is the first convention to bring a concrete definition of what is sexual harassment, as well as to expand on what sexual harassment portrays to. 

Gusler: What is the importance of defining gender-based violence and harassment?

Gomide: When something doesn’t have a concrete definition, it opens up space for that term to become a buzz word, providing governments space for interpretation and lack of action. Having a concrete definition of what is harassment in the world of work means enabling change-making, while creating actionable insights and processes to solve the issue. 

C190 protects all workers from violence and harassment, irrespective of their contractual status, “including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, job-seekers and job applicants and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.”

It also applies to all sectors of the workforce  “whether private or public, both in the formal and informal economy and whether in urban or rural areas.” In fact, the term “world of work” is intentionally used instead of “workplace,” since it broadens the definition of where and how work happens to include communication, travel and commute—and account for the impacts of domestic violence. The implementation of C190 even includes creating better reporting systems for harassment during transit. This is vital as unsafe or poor public transport is one of the most common reasons cited for women leaving or staying out of the workforce.

“Many people believe gender-based violence can only happen indoors, whether that is at home or inside a corporate setting,” Gomide told Ms. “By changing the term to ‘world of work,’ we acknowledge that work can be done in a variety of settings, both public and private. This includes external work-related settings, such as places in which workers are paid, take a rest or meal, during work-related trips, employer provided accommodations and during the workplace commute in public or private transport.”

Gusler: In what way is inclusivity central to eliminating gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work?

Gomide: In all ways. Gender-based violence is not a women’s issue. Gender-based violence affects everyone and must be addressed in an intersectional way so people don’t fall through cracks in the system that we don’t see, for example Black trans and disabled women. When someone experiences gender-based violence, it can affect them profoundly, affecting their dignity and willingness to work. That is why inclusivity is so important, because only when all people affected by this issue are considered, change can actually be accomplished.

To be inclusive, C190 was designed with both a victim-centered approach and a gender-responsive approach.

  • A victim-centered approach means that intent of the action is not included in defining violence and harassment. Rather focus remains on the unacceptability of the conduct, practice or threat, and on its effect on victims.
  • Gender responsiveness means intentionally employing gender considerations to affect the design, development, implementation and results of programs and strategies, policies, laws and regulations, as well as collective agreements.
Sexual harassment has been exacerbated by the pandemic, especially for women in the food service industry and other public-facing professions like hospitality and care work. (Artyom Geodakyan / TASS via Getty Images)

Workers’ vulnerabilities heighten in the context of crises like COVID-19, reshaping the world where work happens and impacting the lives of women and girls. These changes, such as the global economic hardships created as a result of the pandemic and increasing rates of food insecurity, exacerbate pressure on marginalized populations already vulnerable. According to C190, these risks include “domestic violence affecting women working from home, cyber-bullying in the case of tele-working, health risks faced by frontline workers in the health, agriculture, food-production, processing, distribution and other sectors”—all potentially deadly without adequate standards for working conditions. 

C190 took effect June 25, 2021, and as of early January 2022, it has been ratified in nine countries. But Convention 190’s ratification is needed in more countries to effectively address GBVH at a global level and advance women’s human rights. C190 provides a unique model that works to advance women’s rights as they cross ranges of intersecting identities and work realities, and analyzes them in order to ensure equal and fair treatment of women in the workplace and to bring an end to GBVH in the world of work. 

Take Action

Gusler: What can individuals do to increase awareness of ILO Convention 190 and help ratify the convention in their own country or workplace?

Gomide: Talk to your friends, share this article, tag your local politicians and make sure your voices are being heard. We at Red Dot Foundation are doing all we can to pressure governments to ratify the convention, but we do need you, to talk to your local governments wherever you are, and make sure that they are aware of the C190 convention, and only then we can demand action from international governments. 

This article is the result of a partnership between Red Dot Foundation and LIU Global international relations program to engage students with real world issues by asking them to help raise awareness of international legislation.

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Madison Gusler is an editorial fellow for Ms. and a senior at Long Island University Global. She is majoring in global studies and minoring in international relations.