In June 2019, efforts by trade unions across the globe to ensure safe, healthy and violence free workplaces for all categories of workers in the world were crowned with a convention by the International Labor Conference (108th ILC) themed “Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work”.
What makes this convention historic and inclusive on an issue that has implications on the political, economic and social wellbeing of victims of which the majority are women, is its scope. It “protects workers and other persons including employees as defined by national law and practice including interns, apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, job seekers and job applicants, and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.”
For far too long, gender-based violence (GBV) has resulted in “discrimination, marginalization and abuse of women and girls – often arising from culture and traditions and mostly institutionalized by unjust laws – continued in a number of countries,” according the 2017/18 Amnesty report. And this has not spared women in their various workplaces.
The convention known as the ILO C190 is a historic move towards extending protection against GBV in the workplace and guaranteeing enhanced protection for vulnerable workers To many workers in our various African countries, the Convention means commitment to women’s economic independence and their recognition as equal players in the labor market.
Why the Convention matters
This is important against the backdrop of persistent attitudes that uphold violence. For instance, a 2011 survey by MICS indicated that 60 percent of Ghanaian women still believed that husbands are justified in beating their wives, for a variety of reasons. The culture doesn’t only stay at home and the silence within our society has instilled fear and anxiety among many, whose stories could have contributed to challenging and changing the status quo. They for fear of being stigmatized and discriminated against in the workplace.
The global #MeToo phenomenon has drawn enormous attention to the appalling extent of sexual abuse and harassment faced by women, endured by many and covered up by our justice systems, as well as shown persistence even in these workplaces with no protections for women workers. This Amnesty International report shows that the cost of speaking out against injustice continues to grow worldwide. This convention removes the physical, psychological and socio-economic cost related to reporting cases of violence and sexual harassment at the workplace.
As we increase mechanism that break the silence about GBV at the workplace, friendly policies and legislations that are inclusive of voices of women workers, from dress codes to seeking redress in sexual harassment policies and committees as with maternity protection, are very much needed.
In Ghana we saw this vacuum when in 2016 a female employee accused her supervisor of sexual harassment at Metro mass company. She had no institutional standards and policies to fall back on and protect herself so she had to go straight to the courts to seek redress. This and other stories and experiences are why having an extended protection to the world of work is an important step to prevent this abuse as well as provide initial justice measures.
Several studies have demonstrated that, “there is a prevalence of violence and sexual harassment against women at home and in communities, however none has explored its prevalence within the world of work. Contrary to beliefs that “the working-class and by large their representative organizations like trade unions have become “a largely reactionary and backward looking force” the actions, campaigns, stories and efforts by the workers group at the ILO conference suggested otherwise.
New tools for the resistance
As women workers continue to battle for recognition in representation, participation and equal employment opporturnity in the world of work, this convention comes as an added tool to protect working women against discrimination, marginalisation and exploitation due to their biological make up. Gender-based violence thrives on the existence of unequal power relations rooted in societal construct of gender. For this reason, the majority of women workers who are more at risk refuse to report, share or even give a clue about their lived experiences.
As we celebrate ILO Convention 190, I hope the ratification and domestication can lead to enhanced protected spaces for all categories of workers without exception in collective agreements, labor reforms and workplace policies through bipartite and tripartite relations to serve its enactment purpose. With the new convention, workers can confidently report cases of abuse using existing structures and systems or reaching out to unions for support and protection.
The convention will contribute to upholding the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining through the protection of a critical mass of a workforce who have been vulnerable due to gender-based violence.
On their part, unions need to mass up resources to ensure the Convention serves its purpose of protecting workers to the disappointment of the many who have continually questioned the very centrality “of class as a political factor, arguing that labor is only one of a number of a plurality of social actors, and certainly not a force to which any special significance should be attached”
Labor is relevant even though many like Waltz believe “the working class is rendered increasingly ineffectual by a purported numerical decline”. It is a good thing today that many women and by large vulnerable groups have agency in matters of legislation and policies through representation and participation to change their status; a change from previous decades when most laws were enacted to protect the vulnerable in society without their inputs.
The agency that can never be taken away from the vulnerable is the agency of PEOPLE’S POWER which is rooted in organizing and campaigning on the principles of ‘nothing for us without us’.
More than many social movements, unions are strategically positioned to offer undiluted protection, safeguarding workers’ rights embedded in dignity and respect whilst offering agency within the supply chain. Devoid of your status, stand with WORKERS to make governments ratify and domesticate it for adequate protection. Help us to build and document our experiences to change the future of work!
Bashiratu Kamal is the Gender Equality Officer for the General Agricultural Workers Union of Trades Union Congress-Ghana. She is a feminist, a gender and labor expert who believes in equality and equity of all persons. She is a graduate student at the Penn State University majoring in Labor & Global Workers Rights. If you wish to share a story or reach her Email: [email protected] or Twitter: bkamal20002000