From workplace to the world of work, the evolving frontier on addressing violence & harassment

Harassment, sexual or otherwise and violence is an unstated, invisible but oft-repeated inclusion in the job description of millions of women worldwide. It should not be. Gender based violence including sexual harassment is a barrier that both pushes out and keeps women out of the workforce.

Fuelled by the tireless efforts of women’s rights organisations, momentum garnered by #metoo, the issue is finally emerging from a state of hiding to disclosure to a global treaty adopted recently - the Convention on Violence and Harassment 2019 at the ILO’s 108th session in Geneva. Also called the C 190.

Why is it important

Gender based violence, that includes sexual harassment disproportionately impacts millions of women. A few numbers mentioned below point towards what women in India are going through

  • Between 2005 and 2012 alone, more than 20 million Indian women dropped out of the workforce,

  • India recorded 539 cases of sexual harassment at the workplace in 2016, up from 200 cases in 2006, a joint report by EY, FICCI in 2017 reported. Campaigners surveyed during the poll say the figures are just the tip of the iceberg. A 2017 survey by India's National Bar Association found nearly 70% of sexual harassment victims did not report their cases.

  • Disclosures in 2019 saw a record number of sexual harassment cases, 741 cases being reported from Nifty 50 companies. Five of these companies recorded complaints for the first time.

  • 40000 rapes were reported in 2016

  • about 50 million women were assaulted last year on account of spousal physical or sexual violence

  • 46% rise in cases under cruelty by husband & relatives was recorded between 2007 and 2016.

India not only has one of the widest workforce gender gaps but was also recently identified as the world’s most dangerous country for women (From managers to maids: India's working women all face sexual abuse).

What constitutes violence & harassment according to the convention

A range of unacceptable behaviours and practices that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm

From just the workplace to the world of work - an evolving story initiated by C190

Widens the scope, takes it further than the confines of the workplace, which is what is usually provided for within the scope of national legislation. Convention 190 as it is also referred to covers you, Irrespective of the type of contract you have, whether you are on a permanent job, an internship or you are volunteering, whether you are a jobseeker or applicant, under training or on a temp contract, the convention now includes you. Nature of workplaces are changing fast with remote working arrangements increasing in importance. The convention includes in its scope not just travelling to work but also remote working environments, work related communication, including those enabled by information and communication technologies. The world of work includes workplace, commute/travel to and for work, also includes home if that is where you work. It will be equally applicable for the private and public sector, rural or urban areas, formal or informal economies. It also takes into account risks arising from the involvement of third parties, for instance service providers, customers, members of the public, who can be victims or perpetrators

The world of work is often influenced by domestic violence and the treaty lays out recommendations including leave for victims, inclusion of domestic violence in the workplace risk assessments, temporary protection against dismissal for victims to flexible work arrangements and awareness raising. While countries will need to bring in legislation and frame laws to translate the treaty into an actionable reality, recognising the linkages and making recommendations is expected to push the issue out of hiding and make it more visible than before, helping address societal and systemic, attitudinal and behavioural barriers, making violence and harassment at home or work completely unacceptable.

Next steps

  • The convention C190, mainly directed at governments now awaits its initial ratifications. It will enter into force 12 months after two countries ratify it

  • Ratifying countries will then find ways to end violence and harassment in the world of work. Recommendations have been laid out to help them with furthering

A. PROTECTION - enforcement & develop monitoring mechanisms

B. REMEDIATION - resolution mechanism within the workplace, courts, sanctions, inspection

C. PREVENTION - Workplace risk assessments, awareness raising

  • Convention makes space for identification of priorities. Each ratifying country can identify groups or work arrangements that are more vulnerable than others to the risk of violence and harassment.

  • New laws and/or amendment of existing laws are expected to follow for implementation purposes.

6 key facts about the Convention on Violence & Harassment 2019

  1. Adopted on 21st June 2019, the convention is a legally binding instrument that was adopted by 437 votes in favour, 30 abstentions and 7 against. The recommendations are non binding guidelines for ratifying nations

  2. Recognises for the first time that violence & harassment in the world of work can constitute a human rights violation…... is unacceptable and incompatible with decent work

  3. Provides an inclusive definition for violence and harassment

  4. Paves the path and provides guidelines for building a general work environment of zero tolerance against violence and harassment

  5. Moves out of the narrow confines of the workplace to consider the world of work in all its current and potential interpretation and recognises the impact of domestic violence against women in the world of work

  6. What didn’t find a place in the convention - While C190 recognises the case of women and girls, despite activists having sought the inclusion of references to the vulnerability of LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex)

Where from here?

Attitudes do not change overnight with a magic pill. Adopting this convention however will intensify focus and accelerate efforts to address a key barrier that continues to harm women and keep them out of the workforce. Legal and regulatory mechanisms in low and middle income countries like India, is still not as effective and data blindness coupled with social norms, stereotypes and bias continues to accelerate GBV. India is a case in point.

C190 might just be the beginning of the road to converge focus and efforts that finally makes harassment and violence unacceptable both in the private & public sphere, in and outside the world of work.