CARE International UK's Senior Economic Advisor, Hester Le Roux, reflects on the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, and asks what businesses can do to support global efforts to eradicate sexual harassment and gender-based violence in the workplace.
Yesterday (November 25) was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which marks the start of the annual 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Now in its 28th year, the 16 Days campaign has become the most widely recognised and longest-running global campaign for women’s rights in the world. It unites thousands of grassroots activists and local and international women’s organisations around the cause of ending gender-based violence and creates a shared global space for advocacy and action to promote gender equality.
The theme of this year’s 16 Days of Activism is Ending Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work. Violence and harassment in the workplace is a major problem, with women and girls disproportionately affected. Gender-based violence is often the result of unequal power relations between men and women, and such unequal relationships are the norm in many workplaces around the world, creating fertile ground for harassment, abuse and exploitation.
Given that between 40% and 50% of women experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work, it is not surprising that the recent #MeToo and #Time’sUp movements gathered such speed and force across such a broad spectrum of countries and sectors. The 16 Days campaign’s focus on the world of work is therefore especially timely.
Impact on business
CARE International UK works with many individuals and communities that are deeply affected by violence and harassment at work. For example, we recently undertook research in the garment sector in Cambodia, which revealed that nearly one in three women garment factory workers had experienced sexually harassing behaviours in the workplace over the preceding 12 months.
This not only impacts on individual dignity, safety and well-being; it also carries a huge cost for business through increased absenteeism and turnover, higher healthcare and legal costs, poor employee engagement resulting in low engagement and reduced productivity, and reputational risk.
Our research found that sexual harassment in the garment industry in Cambodia is costing the industry up to USD 89 million per year in lost productivity. And in Vietnam, garment factories with lower levels of verbal abuse were markedly more profitable than those where verbal abuse was more widespread.
Building a global campaign
With its focus on the workplace, the 16 Days campaign also creates an ideal platform for ongoing global advocacy to secure a trong ILO Convention to protect all workers from violence and harassment.
At the ILO’s most recent International Labour Conference in June 2018, representatives from governments, employers and workers agreed in principle that a new convention would be adopted to end violence and harassment in the world of work. This draft agreement marks an important milestone in the global campaign for a legally-binding instrument to strengthen workers’ fundamental right to be safe and free from harassment and violence in the workplace.
A new ILO convention would require governments to pursue an integrated approach to address violence and harassment in the world of work, outlining clear responsibilities for public and private employers, workers and their respective organisations, and government. It will require them, for example, to have policies to protect all workers and to have complaints procedures in place.
Encouraging as it is that all three parties to the ILO agree on the need for a new instrument, much work still needs to be done to finalise the exact scope and precise text of the proposed Convention.
Alongside our partners in the business and public sectors, CARE International UK welcomes the progress that has been made with getting this crucial Convention passed. Whilst we recognise that a few countries already have strong regulation in place to protect workers’ rights, one third of countries have none, which is why we believe there is an urgent need for a clear global standard.
What can business do to engage and prepare?
- A few leading companies are keenly aware of the importance of eradicating workplace violence and harassment in their own business and throughout their supply chain and have voiced their strong support for the proposed convention. We urge these companies and more ETI members to keep reiterating their commitment in public fora and among their peers, and to engage with the relevant employers’ organisations to ensure these views are fully represented in the ILO discussions.
- Business also has a powerful voice in advocating with national governments for decisive action in support of the new convention. The ILO explicitly requires member states to consult with employers’ and workers’ representatives before submitting any responses throughout the process of adopting a new convention. While the next formal opportunity for input will be after March when the ILO publishes a revised draft of the convention, we intend to keep up our engagement with all stakeholders in the run-up to that report’s release and we urge business to do the same.
- Companies can start preparing their response to the convention by doing a thorough evaluation of their own policies and practices with a view to identifying areas where further action may be required. CARE International UK has just gone through this process with our corporate partner Diageo and we would be happy to share our learnings and support others embarking on the same journey.
We would also be happy to hear from ETI members about other ways we can support their efforts to stamp out violence and harassment in the workplace. If you would like to find out more about our work in this area or explore the scope for collaboration, please get in touch.
While there is a long road ahead in the journey to protect workers from violence and harassment, the next few months are crucial for establishing a solid base of clear international standards and practices. We look forward to working closely with our partners in the business and public sectors to finalise a robust Convention by June 2019.