This past year, the #MeToo movement has seen celebrities, politicians, journalists and many high-profile people discuss experiences of sexual harassment and violence in the workplace – in all their multiple forms, including psychological abuse and intimidation.
But what we must keep in mind is that, from the factory floor to the boardroom, violence and harassment against women in the workplace transcends borders, salary brackets and levels of job security.
In European Union countries alone, between 40-50% of women have reported unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
My organization, CARE International, is currently marking the UN’s 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, aimed at “galvanizing action to end violence against women and girls around the world”. This year, the UN is encouraging people to label online discussions with the hashtag #HearMeToo.
CARE International is one of many organizations engaging in this campaign. Our position is clear: without an international agreement – a global convention, in other words – on workplace sexual harassment and violence, we cannot adequately address prevention nor provide appropriate support for survivors.
There are more than 500 multilateral treaties aimed at protecting nations against a variety of ills, from anti-corruption measures and control of greenhouse gas emissions to those that tackle doping in sports and substance misuse. Despite this, no single UN treaty addresses the one issue that has so riveted the media in the past year: violence against women in the workplace.
This gap in global legislation is also holding back women’s economic potential, negatively impacting economies and businesses everywhere.
So how can a convention help?
Conventions can accelerate national legislation and regulation, and can mobilize authorities, businesses and society to address a widespread problem. The question isn’t whether we need a global treaty to protect women from the endemic issue of abuse and harassment at work, but rather, why we don’t yet have one.
Shockingly, a study by the WORLD Policy Analysis Centre revealed more than one-third of the world's countries have no laws against sexual harassment at work, leaving nearly 235 million women vulnerable. Where laws exist, they are often weak, or their related policies, practices and resources are too inadequate to be effective.
The moral case for tackling this issue is clear. But so is the economic case. Violence and harassment result in direct costs to businesses due to absenteeism, turnover, litigation and compensation. There are also indirect costs in terms of reduced productivity, and harm to the business’s own reputation and market competitiveness.
In South-East Asia’s Mekong region, for example, more than 3 million women are employed in the garment industry, which is valued at more than US$34 billion. In Cambodia, nearly one in three female garment factory workers report experiencing some form of harassment in the workplace in a 12-month period, and research by CARE placed the resulting national loss of productivity in the garment sector at US $89 million annually.
Many employers are beginning to step up and address the issue. CARE works with global private-sector organizations in some of the world’s poorest places, such as Bangladesh, through education and training initiatives to support women who report abuse, while addressing the attitudes that give rise to it.
And in May this year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) agreed to establish a global convention to protect workers everywhere.
For the first time in history, we are edging closer to that convention, and to protecting women who are prevented from freely exercising their right to be part of a safe workforce. By ratifying the convention, signatories will be committing to applying it in their national contexts.
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As the negotiations proceed, CARE is urging more governments and, importantly, more employers to join trade unions and already supportive nations in agreeing to the ILO convention by the deadline of June 2019.
The business community has a distinct role to play. It is in its interest to ensure that the national employers’ association representing it at the ILO is a progressive force for a meaningful treaty. This entails agreeing on a definition of violence and harassment that covers its many diverse forms, as well as a definition of “worker” and an agreed scope of what constitutes the “world of work”, so that everyone is included. Governments, employers and trade unions would do well to consult widely with women's groups and civil society organizations, and tap into their expertise towards making this convention a reality.
When its legal principles are applied, a global convention on ending violence and harassment in the world of work has the power to offer recourse, protection and savings by reducing costs of absenteeism, turnover or litigation. It’s about striving towards a basic human right to safe work that also makes economic sense.
We have just over six months to achieve this milestone – who’s with us?