Prohibiting violence and harassment in the world of work

Op-ed by the Women’s Commission of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

More than 800 million women have experienced some form of violence and harassment, ranging from physical assault to verbal abuse, bullying and intimidation. #MeToo and similar movements have helped expose the scale of the problem in the world of work, encouraging women to speak out and demand justice. Whilst women are overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected, men are not immune. And discrimination against certain groups exacerbates violence ad harassment.

No sector, whether formal or informal, public, private or voluntary is untouched. However, higher rates are consistently recorded in sectors such as transport, health and social care, hotel and restaurant, media and entertainment, agriculture, and in domestic work. Violence and harassment at work can come from managers, supervisors, co-workers, customers and clients. It can happen at the physical workplace, at work-related social events or training, whilst getting to and from work, or anywhere the worker is required to be because of her or his work. Abusive workplace practices can also contribute to the toll of violence and harassment, with work-related stress and mental illness at an all-time high.

There is a window of opportunity to take decisive action. This month, the International Labour Organization (ILO), the United Nations agency responsible for setting global legal standards for working conditions, will complete negotiations on a new law to prohibit, prevent and remedy violence and harassment. If the negotiations are successful, the new international law will place clear responsibilities on employers and governments for tackling the scourge of violence and harassment in the world of work. Workers, too, will have responsibilities to refrain from acts of violence and harassment and to comply with any policies, procedures or other steps taken by their employers to prevent it.

Whilst there are differences to settle on the final content of the new law, there is broad support for its adoption amongst trade unions, governments and some employers. Ahead of the negotiations, some companies have made their support public, demonstrating how measures can be taken not only to prevent and respond to workplace violence and harassment, but also to address the effects of domestic violence on the world of work. Such measures include paid leave for victims of domestic violence, easy access to information, advice services or counselling, or varying working hours to minimise the risk of stalking by violent ex-partners. And companies are increasingly engaging in collective negotiations with trade unions at enterprise, sectoral and global levels to ensure that the people who work, or seek to work for them, are protected and free from fear.

Violence and harassment in the world of work is a global problem, requiring global solutions. The negotiations at the ILO are timely, not least as the UN agency celebrates 100 years of its existence this year. Trade unions were campaigning for this new law long before the painful revelations of #MeToo. Our government and employers must now play their part in making this a reality. No one should go to work in fear of experiencing violence and harassment.