Cultural Peculiarities

Last July, the International Labor Organization adopted the convention “Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.” Experts called this one of the major international events of the year in the sphere of work, since the ILO had not adopted any new conventions for almost 10 years. Convention No. 190 was 10 years in the making, and its adoption was accelerated by the #MeToo movement.

A scandal in Hollywood, a place that has little in common with our everyday lives but is compelling nonetheless, sparked the widespread #MeToo movement. It’s not that the story of a famous producer and the victims of his harassment came as a surprise to tabloid readers—after all, the common perception is that it’s only possible to become a movie star “through the bed,” that this is the “norm,” that these are the “rules of the game.” The surprise was that a huge number of victims started speaking out about this and that sexual violence and harassment turned out to exist not somewhere off in Hollywood, in the “world of work” on the red carpet or in the spotlight, but in the here and now, at elite and regular schools, at universities, at business and editorial offices, at the State Duma, and in the manufacturing and service sectors. At any workplace where there is a relationship of dependence: “boss – subordinate,” “teacher – student,” “deputy – journalist,” and so forth. It goes without saying that women make up the majority of victims, since they are more often in a dependent position at work. And this is particularly true when a woman works in a “male” collective or in a traditionally “non-female” job as a sailor or long-haul truck driver.

Another surprise has been the realization that “we knew about cases of harassment but didn’t react as we should have.” Russian feminists have long been sounding the alarm over appalling instances of domestic violence and femicide committed by husbands/partners that never earned a reaction from the police, or anyone else for that matter, but many only started thinking about harassment at the workplace, which can easily escalate into persecution and terrible violence, after the headline-grabbing murder of a young graduate student by a professor of history at Saint Petersburg State University: neither colleagues nor the police reacted to his inexcusable behavior for years.

And this is exactly why Convention No. 190 and the attached Recommendation No. 206 were created with a broad definition of “violence and harassment” in the world of work (“a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment”) and a narrower definition of “gender-based violence and harassment” (“violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender, or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately, and includes sexual harassment”).

This convention can be widely applied: it encompasses all participants in labor relations (permanent and part-time, current and former workers, apprentices, interns, volunteers, jobseekers); it can be applied in all sectors of the economy, even informal ones; it acknowledges that harassment and violence can occur not just in places where the worker is paid, but also in places where the worker takes a break or meal or uses sanitary or washing facilities, during commuting to or from work, or on work-related trips, travel, or training sessions, and in employer provided accommodations; it can take place in person or online; and it can take many forms, from direct violence to insults and threats.

One would think that all three groups represented at the ILO by each country (workers, employers, and the state, which all vote separately) would be interested in protecting workers from violence and harassment. As expected, representatives from the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia and the Confederation of Labor of Russia voted for the convention. But the government delegation itself was actually among the six countries that abstained (no countries voted against), justifying this with the fact that none of the eighty-plus amendments proposed by Russia were adopted. And it’s a good thing they weren’t adopted: for example, Russia proposed that the convention should not cover workers without a permanent labor contract, that is, that the convention should make their situation even more vulnerable. And the term “gender” was disagreeable to them…

Representatives of employers behaved in a similar vein. They deemed the problem of harassment to be secondary and non-pressing “in light of cultural and other peculiarities” of Russia and the problem of violence to be within the realm of criminal and judicial prosecution. Meanwhile, “coercion to perform actions of a sexual nature” goes unprosecuted in Russian criminal and administrative courts. At the same time, from 20 to 59 percent of respondents in various polls have faced workplace harassment.

According to Aleksandr Shokhin, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, “The new ILO convention aspires to regulate human relationships beyond the world of work.” Naturally, conflicts will always arise during attempts to formalize the “human comedy.” Is flirting acceptable at work? And what about an office romance? Will people be fired for “immoral behavior”? Relationships between teachers and schoolchildren are clear, but what about adult students enraptured with their charming professors? Isn’t that mutual consent?

For these cases, way back in 2015 the ILO recommended that employers adopt a special document to combat sexual harassment at work. First of all, this document notes there must be a clearly stated “zero tolerance” policy for this negative phenomenon that lists all forms of sexual harassment from whistling and jokes about age and appearance to sexual violence, as well as a mechanism for formal and informal complaints. Next, it guarantees protection for people who complain and mechanisms to help victims. Finally, it charges all participants in the work process with the obligation to comply with this policy and respond in measure with their rights and authorities. It also describes sanctions for violations. It goes without saying that this document does not eliminate the opportunity of filing a complaint with law enforcement authorities if the harassment moves to a criminal plane.

If this policy functioned effectively in the State Duma, then a punishment would have been found for Deputy Leonid Slutsky. If female students victimized by harassment had known about their right to complain, if the Department of History at Saint Petersburg State University had had mechanisms for filing complaints and for disciplining professors, it’s possible that a tragedy could have been averted.

Forms of protection for employees can and must be developed regardless of whether Russia ratifies Convention No. 190 or not. In any case, even if the supremacy of international law is buried in the impending constitutional amendments, Russia will still have to answer to the ILO about the situation with violence and harassment in the world of work. It would do well to listen to experts fighting for gender equality in a workplace that is safe and free from violence.

Olga Abramenko – expert of the Anti-Discrimination Center Memorial

First published on the blog of Radio Svoboda