It is no small fact that it has taken exactly 100 years for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) since its inception in 1919, to come out with C190 – the first-ever global treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work in 2019. History shows that the first few conventions of the ILO addressing women were actually to restrict and limit jobs for women which they called the Night Work Convention. It is important to note that the usefulness of treaties lies in their ability to evolve with time and in response to our advocacy. After years of campaigning by trade unions, civil society, and women’s organisations, the C190 was passed and is symbolic of this change in ideas around women’s rights in the world of work. Yet it has been ratified only by 4 countries – Fiji, Namibia, Uruguay, and Argentina, showing there’s a long road ahead.
The following interview has been adapted from a conversation with Audrey Lee, Senior Programme Manager at IWRAW Asia Pacific during a workshop on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the workplace held in December 2021 as part of the Global 16 Days of Activism Against GBV.
What is ILO C190? Why is it important?
C190 is a convention under the ILO focusing on eliminating gender-based discrimination and violence in the world of work. This multilateral treaty provides the template for change by supplying specific information, the basis for commitment, and the timeline.
C190 is important in the world of work due to its usefulness. It equips women with the capability to claim and exercise their rights. As a multilateral treaty, the treaty members have to ratify the standards, norms, and values embedded in the treaty. Furthermore, the preamble of C190 references other international treaties like the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) to ensure alignments with the values and socio-political agenda of other conventions.
The implementation of the treaty goes beyond the member states which are countries. Due to the tripartite nature of the ILO, the state is not the only duty bearer but non-state actors i.e. corporations, unions, employees are also held accountable. The system provides an alternative relevance in terms of treaties and strengthens the state’s obligation.
How does the C190 view the employer, the employee, and their accountability?
With domestic legislation varying between states, C-190 provides broad definitions for consistency for such terms. For example, because of the traits of an employer, the meaning of an employee is also broad by nature. But what is remarkable about C190 is that it seeks to define the employer as someone with authority and control over the others despite the nature of the work (e.g. titles, contracts). Whereas an employee includes workers and other persons in the world of work, employees as defined by national law and practice, persons working irrespective of their contractual status, persons in training, interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, and even volunteers and jobseekers and job applicants1Article 2 (1): This Convention protects workers and other persons in the world of work, including employees as defined by national law and practice, as well as persons working irrespective of their contractual status, persons in training, including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants, and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.
This definition applies to all sectors – private, public, formal or informal economy, and urban or rural areas. These broad range definitions challenge our perception of who is a worker, what is a workplace, and what is work as we think of more specific issues such as GBV at the workplace.
How are the issues of SGBV and harassment at the workplace addressed in C190?
A strong point of C190 is its capacity to address the gaps in the definition of SGBV and harassment in the world of work. With the varied definitions of violence in national laws, the definitions in C190 help expand or give depth to the law.
C190 also recognises violence to be more amorphous and unclear acts/behaviours of things that are done out of omission. For instance, the types of harms that are recognised are physical, psychological, sexual, economic harm and SGBV and harrassment. The range of unacceptable behaviour could be threats (direct threats), single or repeated occurrences (a cumulative one) that has the aim or results in an intended/unintended/likely form of harm.
Interpretation of violence and harassment can vary culturally or socially, so C190 is intentionally broad so that country-specific laws and policies on SGBV and harassment can be framed.
What are examples of economic harm at the workplace? How is the C-190 able to address economic harm in the workplace?
There are varied perspectives on economic harm by activist groups such as wage loss, rights that need to be safeguarded like maternity benefits and leave, SRHR-related services or sanitation facilities and occupational health and safety considerations such as access to healthcare.
With that, C190 ensures that there are criminal laws and civil remedies by making sure economic losses and harms are addressed. It is still the state’s responsibility to ensure the availability of these policies in the workplace.
What is next?
C190 is only useful if it is acted upon. As an international treaty, once ratified, the state has to execute it. Even without ratification, it could still be the standard for domestic legislation and policies. Therefore, the advantage of C190 depends on the way we approach it and make it actionable.
C190 is not without its faults. Despite addressing the SGBV and harassment in the world of work, C190 does not specifically address marginalised groups such as women with disabilities (WWDs), and LBT communities. The treaty acknowledges that some constituencies face more risk and are more vulnerable. It needs to be further strengthened because SGBV and harassment are rooted in discrimination and inequality, and cannot be addressed by laws that are heteronormative, create a gender binary, and exist for the able-bodied.
- 1Article 2 (1): This Convention protects workers and other persons in the world of work, including employees as defined by national law and practice, as well as persons working irrespective of their contractual status, persons in training, including interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants, and individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer.