It was an electrifying moment. It was the last hour before the International Labor Organization (ILO) International Labor Conference 2019 would end. 2019 was the Centenary Year of ILO. The Plenary Hall in the Palais de Nations in Geneva was packed with delegates. Emotions, tiredness and the balmy weather made the situation tense. However, every delegate was all ears, listening to the final recommendations of a new ILO Convention. History was being made on 21 June 2019 as delegates were ready to vote for adoption of a new labor standard to combat violence and harassment in the workplace. I was there as President Employers Federation of Pakistan, and representing the private sector of the country.
There was a supersonic roar of approval when it was announced that the tripartite delegates representing governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations adopted The Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 (C190), and the Violence and Harassment Recommendation 2019 (R206). The scene on the stage was worth watching. Delegates were hugging, crying, applauding, and waving fists in the air, pictures being taken, and visible sighs of relief. I also voted for adoption of C190 and R206 because I believed that this convention was much overdue and much imperative. The convention established new global standards aimed at ending violence and harassment in the world of work and is the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
The final vote count for adoption of C190 had 439 in favor, 7 against, and 30 abstentions while the quorum for adoption was 321 votes. Among the seven negative votes, there were employers representatives from Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Malaysia and Singapore. Fourteen representatives of Employers Organizations abstained, including from Germany, Austria, Denmark, Russia, Switzerland, and Thailand etc. At the same time, when Recommendation 236, concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, was put to vote, the final tally was 397 in favor, 12 against, and 44 abstentions. Employers who voted against the recommendation were Germany, Austria, Bangladesh, Denmark, El Salvador, Finland, Malaysia, Portugal, Singapore, Sudan, Sweden, and Czech Republic. Abstentions from the Employers side included Australia, Brazil, Spain, USA, France, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and Sri Lanka etc. The sad fact is that so far there have been less than 20 countries that have ratified C190 despite the fact that an overwhelming number of countries had voted in favor of C190.
The Declaration of Philadelphia, signed on 10 May 1944, restated the traditional objectives of ILO. Two new directions were highlighted; the centrality of human rights to social policy and the need for international economic planning. People have the right “to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. Violence and harassment in the world of work is therefore the antithesis of decent work. It is a threat to the dignity, health and well-being of those who experience it as well as their families. It demoralizes working environments and labor relations, affects productivity and jeopardizes enterprise reputation.
A brief prepared by the International Center for Research on Women states “Governments must ratify ILO Convention 190 and ensure that its principles are upheld through legislation and national policies that institutionalize and strengthen frameworks to ensure equal and fair treatment of women in the workplace and the eradication of gender-based violence and harassment at work. Regional bodies should work closely with governments to encourage them to ratify C190 and establish regional standards to guarantee the safety of all by eliminating violence and harassment”. It further says that “since the Convention has expanded the notion of workplace, from factory to the public and private places where women work, sell their provisions, and commute, governments must make sure that all women regardless of sexuality, ethnicity, geography, formal or informal work status, etc. have a strong voice and access to the justice system”.
According to Shauna Olney of ILO the conference took a pragmatic approach, defining violence and harassment as ‘a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices’ that ‘aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm’. Guy Ryder, Secretary General ILO, stated that “a better future of work is free of violence and harassment. I urge all countries to ratify C190”. US academician Prof. Anne Laure Humbert opined that “it is important to understand violence as a structural issue, and part of a system that produces and reproduces inequalities between groups, including on the basis of gender”. A global survey conducted by International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) revealed that in 35 percent of the countries, there is no indication of when the governments will ratify C190, that in 48 percent of the countries, the governments are expected to ratify C190 by 2023, while 16 percent of the countries have completed the process of ratification.
Pakistan has also taken a positive initiative in this direction. The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Amendment) Bill 2022 that was passed on 14 January 2022 expands the definition of workplaces to cover both formal and informal workplaces and closely reflects C190. It specifically includes domestic workers who often are isolated and marginalized and more vulnerable to workplace violence and harassment. Notwithstanding the fact that the enactment of this law, which is imperative if Pakistan is to ratify C190, is a step in the right direction, there is apprehension that it will not be implemented in true letter and spirit by the authorities.
On a personal note, I am passionate about C190 and am of the opinion that ILO members must fast track the ratification of the convention since harassment and violence is an epidemic across the world that needs to end. During the last two years, I have been sensitizing women chambers and speaking at various conferences and seminars. Moreover, I have been lobbying with women MNAs and senators and exhorting them to push for ratification. Although all of them pledged to take this matter up, the result is that they probably were caught up in the whirlpool of political polarization that has become the hallmark of the nation’s legislative bodies.
I fully agree with the sentiments expressed by Marie Clarke Walker, Vice-Chair of Workers of the Standard-Setting Committee on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, who worked tirelessly and zealously for adoption, that C190 “would bring about profound change in the lives of millions of workers, especially women workers, as well as a cultural shift in workplaces to make them safer, more dignified and respectful for all. Having a global minimum standard to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work will bring hope to millions of workers. Hope, that a world of work free from violence and harassment is possible”.
The writer is former president Employers Federation of Pakistan