ILO Violence and Harassment Convention: the importance of protecting particularly vulnerable women

On June 25, 2021, the ILO Convention No. 190 (“Violence and Harassment Convention”), which was adopted together with Recommendation No. 206 containing practical measures for the implementation of the Convention, will enter into force. The convention was discussed for over five years, with trade unions playing a major role in accelerating its adoption. Additional recommendations aimed to help employers implement these new norms may soon be adopted, which will include procedures for resolving conflicts in working teams, building employee relationships, workplace ethics, etc.

With the adoption of the Convention and Recommendation, the concepts 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 “gender-based violence and harassment” (the same actions based on sex or gender).

The Convention potentially covers not only physical violence and sexual harassment, but also insults, threats, harassment and mobbing (bullying an employee with the aim of further dismissal).

These legal acts note that gender-based violence and harassment disproportionately affects women and girls, therefore, an integrated approach to this problem is needed, which is gender-responsive and tackles underlying causes and risk factors, including gender stereotypes, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, unequal gender-based power relations with male prevalence among government officials and decision makers.

The Convention protects a wide range of people in all fields of employment: not only all male and female workers, regardless of their contract status, but also trainees, apprentices, volunteers, job seekers during interviews. The document covers various possible situations that arise in the workplace and in technical premises, on the way from home to work, during training, business trips or other work-related activities. With the pandemic of Covid-19 and the increasing prevalence of teleworking, it is also important that the Convention protects victims working online. Given the relevance of the problem of domestic violence, the ILO adopted the position that the employer must try to prevent domestic violence and combat its consequences, otherwise these will affect the world of work. The measures on the part of the employer can be providing extraordinary vacation, flexible working hours, protection from dismissal, informing about the consequences of domestic violence and how to get protection against it.

Additional protective measures are recommended due to the high risks of harassment for those employed at night work, domestic work and work in secluded places, in healthcare, transportation, education, entertainment, tourism, social and other services, and in emergency services.

The new Convention is of particular importance for people belonging to vulnerable groups, who face various forms of discrimination, including multiple discrimination, and run higher risk of harassment. For example, women working in professions, which are officially prohibited for them, labor migrants and LBTI women not only can become victims of harassment more often than others, but also lack sufficient opportunities to protect themselves from it.

Women employed in jobs, which are officially prohibited for them, are subject to additional risks of harassment and violence: in “atypical” areas of employment, women (such as, for example, truck drivers) find themselves in exclusively male teams. In cases of harassment, seeking help from colleagues and supervisors, as a rule, leads only to advice not to take what is happening seriously, or worse, not to resist and agree to have sexual contact. Often women are employed semi-legally: in a different position, under a male name or surname. The likelihood of violations of their rights increases dramatically: after all, these women are not be able to appeal to the labor inspectorate or the courts for protection of their rights, and they risk losing their jobs altogether. This often means that they will not be able to get a similar job in the area where they live. Therefore, women try to be “comfortable” employees and avoid any conflicts, including placing complaints about sexual harassment. Anti-Discrimination Centre “Memorial”, as part of its #Alljobs4allwomen campaign, advocates abolition of any discriminatory occupational prohibitions against women.

Female migrant laborers, while living in an unfamiliar country, face the risks of deportation and extortion, which places them in a very vulnerable position. Limited opportunities for protection of their rights make migrant women powerless against violations, including sexual harassment. For example, harassment is one of the biggest threats to underage babysitters from Kyrgyzstan who work in Russia and Kazakhstan. Young women, while being thousands of kilometers from their homes and often not knowing the language of the new country, find themselves locked in apartments where they work, and have no opportunity to complain about harassment or escape to a safer place. For more information about the situation of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan see the report of FIDH and its partner organizations, ADC “Memorial” and “Bir Duino”.

Many states neglect the creation of special conditions for the protection of the rights of labor migrants. In order to improve the situation, the ILO recommends taking special protective measures regardless of the migratory status of women; it envisages measures to combat harassment in migration policy, conducting information campaigns against harassment in different languages, including the languages ​​of labor migrants.

LBTI women are also at risk in the workplace. Homophobia keeps them in constant fear of losing their jobs due to being outed. As a result, they often avoid drawing additional attention to themselves and tolerate inappropriate treatment, including harassment and violence. In some cases, threats of outing are used to manipulate LBTI women. Disclosing information about their sexual orientation and gender identity is most likely to create problems for them not only in the workplace or when changing jobs, it can also lead to hardships in personal life, including risks of domestic violence.

Last summer, Convention No.190 was ratified by the first two countries, Fiji and Uruguay, and all other countries are now required to provide information on the reasons for the delay in its ratification and report on progress in changing legislation and practices to eradicate harassment and violence.

While the Convention was still being discussed, the Russian authorities proposed more than 80 amendments, which would significantly narrow its application (for example, extending its norms only to employees with a permanent employment contract, not imposing on the employer the requirement on provision of assistance to victims of domestic violence, using the term “men and women” instead of the concept of “gender”). The ILO did not accept these proposals, and the Russian authorities abstained from voting for the Convention. But both the Convention and Recommendation were supported by the Russian trade unions.

Currently the Russian laws do not protect against harassment: Article 133 of the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation (“Compulsion to acts of a sexual nature”) and Article 20.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Russian Federation (“Petty hooliganism”) do not adequately correspond to the qualifications of harassment and violence.

ADC “Memorial” has earlier raised this issue in its alternative materials and indicated that Russia does not only lack the required legal norms, but it is also quite rare for organizations to have ethical codes that would implement ILO recommendations in the workplace, while calls for the creating such codes of conduct for employees are often met with resistance.

During the last pre-session of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in July 2020, experts inquired about the plans of the Russian authorities to adopt norms that would punish sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ratification of Convention No. 190 and implementation of its provisions can significantly improve the situation of women, including representatives of vulnerable groups, and it will be an important step towards achieving gender equality and protection of workers’ rights.

Inessa Sakhno