The ILO reaches 100, but as well as celebrating its age, it’s also showing its relevance as it tackles violence in the workplace, reports the TUC's international policy officer for business & human rights, Stephen Russell.
Created in the ruins of a Europe torn by the Great War, the ILO was created to help stop violence by promoting social justice through work. 100 years later it’s finally turning its attention to stopping violence at work, something that can be a serious violation of human rights.
For the last two years, the oldest member of the ‘UN family’ has been discussing a new international labour standard to help end violence and harassment in the workplace. Although violence in the workplace has often been alluded to in other standards, there has never been a complete set of definitions of what constitutes violence and harassment, and what defines a worker and the workplace, alongside comprehensive guidance on what ILO members should then do to prevent it.
ETI will send a letter to the UK government on behalf of its members, urging it to give full support to the ILO convention. Brands currently supporting the letter include: Primark, ASOS, Union Hand-roasted, Appetito, Marshalls, Orsay, Mr Price, Boden, Oliver Bonas, Whistles, Hobbs, Phase Eight, John Lewis Partnership (Waitrose), BBS Granite Concepts Limited, Seasalt, CED Stone Group, M&Co, Regatta.
There’s no shortage of evidence to show that violence and harassment is a serious workplace problem. A TUC study in 2016 found that more than half of women reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment, and that most of them felt unable to report it to their employer. The HSE suggests that around 500,000 British workers faced workplace violence in 2018. Internationally the bad news keeps coming: the Bangladesh Independent reports that 60% of the countries women working in the ready-made garment sector face some sort of violence in their factories.
Whether violence and harassment are themselves illegal isn’t necessarily the problem. The problem is workplace culture and ambiguity around whose responsibility it is to prevent, or at least minimise the risk of, violence.
Here in the UK, we have seen examples of domestic violence spilling into the workplace. Some governments and employers protested that this was not their responsibility, but when faced with the fact that flexibility around working arrangements (such as being able to come to work at different times of day to avoid stalkers) can help protect those at risk, they have seen how this works: the convention is about the art of the possible.
The ILO’s unique role in bringing governments, employers and workers together to make the rules means that we are now much closer to answering that question, and creating a new reality where if there’s something that can be done, it will be done.
Debates in the committee have also focused on the scope of work and the workplace – the Convention must cover the widest possible range of workers in the widest possible set of circumstances – but also whether there is a gap between what the government must do and what an employer should. But there can be no gap. If a government ratifies this new Convention, as hopefully most will, then it has responsibility for anything not specifically delegated to employers by the text. Equally, employers must take steps to play their part
But that leaves a new challenge for ETI members. In some countries the government will either not ratify the Convention, or will be slow to enforce it. In those circumstances we ask companies to examine the text and make their own arrangements to ensure that workers in their supply chains are properly supported so that no one can be a victim of violence and harassment that could otherwise have been avoided.