There can be no ‘decent work’ while gender-based violence is still so pervasive in the world of work

Monday, November 26, 2018 - 06:50

Every year since 1991, feminist movements, women’s rights and social justice organizations around the world use the 16-day period between November 25 (International Day Against Violence Against Women) and December 10 (International Human Rights Day) to ramp up our campaigns calling for an end to violence against women and gender-based violence as an urgent human rights issue.

This year, the 16 Days Campaign is focused on a type of violence that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should: violence in the world of work.

If asked, most women can tell you about experiencing, at some point in their working life, unwelcome advances, sexual ‘jokes’, physical contact or sexual abuse. Consider the #MeToo movement founded by African American civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006, which went viral in 2017. It showed us what feminist activists the world over have been saying for decades, that this kind of behavior is so pervasive that we sometimes don’t even consider it harassment, leave alone violence. And that it is shrouded in silence and victim-blaming.

The International Women’s Media Foundation recently published the result of a survey in which it found that more than half of women in media have suffered work-related abuse, threats or physical attacks in the past year. Nine out of ten female journalists say that physical and online threats have been increasing over the past five years. We have all witnessed female journalists or women in media facing endless streams of abuse, cyber stalking, defamation and public shaming. A Zambian journalist was a target less than a month ago. This happens to women in media in my country Kenya too often to count. Across sectors, discrimination, bullying and assault is also specifically targeted at individual workers based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression and gender non-conformity. Devastatingly, we essentially normalise this kind of behavior as, well, par for the course.

Just like we normalise the daily harassment and violence meted out on street vendors and hawkers in many parts of the world. States do not recognize public spaces as workplaces, yet they are the workplaces of millions of informal workers whose work is essentially criminalized.

In Africa 85.8 per cent of all employment is informal and the figure is 68.2 per cent in Asia and the Pacific. All informal workers are subject to violence and harassment – they have low earnings, work in poor and dangerous conditions and have inadequate living situations. 

Women informal workers are particularly vulnerable to gender-based violence as their gender and employment status intersect.

So, while male waste pickers go about their work with the constant fear of violence from local authorities, female waste pickers carry the additional fear of violence from male waste pickers. Female street hawkers, including underage girls, are pressured to exchange sex for permission to vend in the street. Groups fighting for the rights of informal workers like Women in Informal Employment Organizing and Globalizing (WIEGO) continue to document and expose these realities and put forward recommendations to address them. Informality means that these workers are excluded from protective labour legislation.  

Domestic workers, 83 per cent of whom are women and almost 30 per cent of whom are excluded from national labour legislation, are among the most vulnerable to violence, harassment, forced labour and abuse. We constantly hear reports of migrant domestic workers subjected to extreme mistreatment and exploitation, and even death. A recent report on sexual violence and harassment against commercial agriculture workers shows how widespread structural tolerance of such violations combines with non-standard forms of work, such as informal or temporary work, to distance perpetrators from accountability.

Then there’s the issue of domestic violence in the world of work. An example would be when third parties or co-workers who are family members commit violent acts against partners or family members at or through the workplace – this could be assault, stalking or harassment by phone or email. It also includes conduct aimed at preventing a person from accessing work or remaining in the workforce. States and employers need to acknowledge the workplace as a significant entry point for addressing domestic violence.  

Currently, there is no international legal standard that addresses violence and harassment in the world of work and that provides a definition and scope for it. Although the International Labour Organization (ILO) has adopted numerous standards that refer to violence, none is primarily about violence and harassment, nor does any define such conduct or provide guidance on how to address it. The standards are also around certain forms of violence and harassment or apply to certain sectors or occupations, meaning that many workers fall through the cracks. 

In 2009, the International Labour Conference (ILC), which establishes and adopts international labour standards, adopted a resolution calling for the prohibition of gender-based violence in the workplace and for policies, programmes, legislation and other measures to be implemented to prevent it. 

In 2019, 10 years later and in its centenary year, the ILC will take steps towards an international standard on violence and harassment against women and men in the world of work. ActionAid is joining the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Public Services International (PSI), WIEGO and others in supporting the campaign for a Convention supplemented by a Recommendation, with a strong focus on the gender dimension of violence. A Recommendation would provide crucial guidance to states, employers and employee organizations on applying the Convention.

This stuff is not only for labour departments - the reality is that current macroeconomic policy runs counter to decent work and sustainable livelihoods and reinforces gender inequalities. With decent work deservedly coming into sharp focus under Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, it is crucial that we address the reality that macro-level policy that shapes how resources are made available and distributed is currently and essentially working at cross purposes with gender equality. It is widely documented how gender bias in macroeconomic policy results in structural disadvantages for women.  As an example, the austerity policies pushed by international financial institutions, which cut social spending, defund public services and reduce public-sector employment hit women especially hard.When female street vendors say that they are vulnerable to violence due to lack of street lighting, unsafe toilet facilities or bus stations, we must acknowledge that such policies are at the very heart of the daily violation of women’s rights and do something about it.

And when the World Bank recommends weakening labour rights, deprioritizing minimum wage, increasing flexibilisation and releasing companies from the ‘rigidities’ of labour regulation, is it not dismantling the decent work agenda and asking states to disregard their international human rights obligations? This at a time when women’s paid and unpaid labour is both undervalued and exploited? The Bank also asks states to finance social protections through regressive taxes such as value added tax (VAT) ignoring the widely documented gendered impacts of this particularly on poor women.

PSI has illustrated how violence against public health sector workers (who are predominantly women) is exacerbated by a public health sector in crisis due to growth in precarious work, decreased numbers of workers, lack of public investment, restructuring of services, and the challenges of privatization and public-private partnerships (PPPs).

This 16 Days, we must pay attention to the issue of gender-based violence as a rights issue in and of itself. But we must address it as central to the agenda of decent work for women which is dependent on more than good labour standards, and impacted by economic models that fail to acknowledge or address the realities of women’s paid and unpaid work – including pervasive violence and harassment. The decent work agenda is deficient if it doesn’t comprehensively address violence in the world of work. To be comprehensive it must cover ALL types of violence and harassment, and ALL kinds of workers.

[1] The 16 Days of Activism campaign is coordinated by the Centre for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) and brings together over 6000 organizations in 187 countries. Read more about it: