Workplace Harassment and ILO’s Convention 190

The first global treaty to address the burning but the oft-neglected issue of violence and harassment at the workplace has just come into force. The ILO Violence and Harassment Convention can help empower working women in myriad ways. Here’s how. 

Ironical as it sounds, workplace harassment increased in countries around the world during the pandemic. Sample this. In the US, the results of a survey conducted by Project Include, a non-profit organization that seeks to accelerate diversity and inclusion in the tech industry, found that 25 per cent of respondents experienced an increase in gender-based harassment during the pandemic. 

The survey also showed that around 10 per cent of respondents experienced an increase in race-and ethnicity-based hostility, while 23 percent of respondents who were 50 years and older experienced increased age-based harassment or hostility.

Now, in the UK, 23 per cent of women who took part in a survey conducted by the charity Rights of Women and have experienced harassment say it has increased since they started working from home. Similarly, an article published in The Walrus stated that Employment and Social Development Canada recently admitted that pandemic has heightened the risk of violence and harassment, especially for people in vulnerable groups.

This trend did not go unnoticed by the International Labour Organization (ILO) which recently commented in a press statement, “Violence and harassment at work takes a range of forms and leads to physical, psychological, sexual and economic harm…the COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the issue, with many forms of work-related violence and harassment being reported across countries since the outbreak began, particularly against women and vulnerable groups.”

The press statement was released on the occasion of the launch of ILO’s new Violence and Harassment Convention. ILO further stated that “urgent action needs to be taken in the COVID-19 context to ensure everyone’s right to a world of work free from violence and harassment, not only during and after the outbreak, but also to build a sustainable recovery and better resilience in the face of future crises”.

The role of ILO

For starters, the ILO is the first and oldest agency of the United Nations. It aims to set international labour standards that lead to freedom, equity, security and dignity in the workplace. The ILO organises a conference once every year in Geneva to set policies, including conventions and recommendations.

The ILO Violence and Harassment Convention is the first international treaty on violence and harassment in the workplace. The treaty was adopted by ILO’s International Labour Conference in 2019 and came into legal effect on 25 June 2021. Convention 190 also provides the first internationally accepted definition of violence and harassment in the workplace. It defines violence and harassment as “a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices” that “aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm”. This covers physical abuse, verbal abuse, bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, threats and stalking, among other things.

The convention also takes into consideration the new developments in work culture following the pandemic and also covers cyber bullying. “By covering all forms of violence and harassment occurring in the course of, linked with or arising out of work, Convention No. 190 extends protection against violence and harassment occurring through work-related communication, including those enabled by ICT,” ILO stated.

So far, seven countries have ratified the convention. They are Argentina, Ecuador, Fiji, Namibia, Mauritius, Somalia and Uruguay. Uruguay was the first to ratify the convention. According to news reports, several other countries are in the final stages of their ratification process. These include France, Italy, and Spain.

The UN recently launched a campaign to promote ratification and implementation of the agreement. India, though a founding member of the International Labour Organization is yet to ratify the ILO convention. However, it had voted in favour of the convention in 2019.

Workplace harassment in India

It was 2017 when Priya Ramani, a veteran Indian journalist, recounted an ordeal she had encountered in the workplace as a young scribe through an article published in The Vogue. In the article, titled ‘To the Harvey Weinsteins of the world’, she narrated how a senior editor invited her to his hotel room for what he called a job interview and asked her to sit on his bed while answering questions that seemed too personal and out of place.

It was a year later that she revealed the name of that editor. What ensued was a defamation case that concluded only in February this year. In what was regarded a landmark victory, Ramani was acquitted in a criminal defamation case filed by former union minister M J Akbar.

Cases such as this abound in India. Only a few become court cases or receive nationwide notice. According to the book Remote Work, Sexual Harassment, and Worker Well-Being: A Study of the United States and India by Jacqueline Strenio of Southern Oregon University in the US, and Joyita Roy Chowdhury of FLAME University, India, a survey, conducted in 80 organizations across India’s major cities, found that more than 50 per cent of women have experienced multiple forms of sexual harassment at the workplace. 

A study conducted by the Indian Journal of Community Medicine to understand the ‘types and reasons for harassment generally faced by working women’, found that of the 160 women studied, 28 per cent of the study subjects had experienced some form of harassment, out of which 37 per cent were less than 25 years of age. 

Law and beyond

In India, there are no specific laws on workplace harassment. What exists is ‘the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013’. The Act, which came into effect on 9 December 2013, seeks to protect women from sexual harassment at their place of work. 

However, the ILO has pointed out that very few Indian employers were compliant with this statute. According to a report by FICCI-EY (a collaboration between EY India and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry), which was released in 2015, as much as 36 per cent of Indian companies and 25 per cent of MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act, 2013. Besides, sexual harassment is not the only kind of harassment in the workplace and the issue is not only confined to women. 

But things could greatly change if India decides to ratify ILO Convention 190. “A better future of work is free of violence and harassment,” Guy Ryder, the ILO Director-General had stated in his message to launch the ILO campaign. He further urged countries to ratify the Convention and “help build together with employers and workers and their organizations, a dignified, safe and healthy working life for all.”

The ILO has also launched a guide aimed at helping “constituents and other stakeholders promote and implement the Convention and Recommendation”. The guide covers core principles and measures that countries can take to prevent, address and eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work and includes examples of national laws, regulations and policies.

Also Read: International Women’s Day: An N13 Reading List

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