China promotes gender equality at work

OpEd by Claire Courteille-Mulder, the Director of ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia. According to an ILO report, up to 12 percent of workers said they had been subject to verbal abuse, humiliating behavior, bullying, unwanted sexual attention or sexual harassment. Eliminating violence and harassment at the workplace is crucial to achieve greater gender equality and shape a future that works for all men and women, says Claire Courteille-Mulder.

Comment | 23 September 2019
This year marks the centenary of the International Labour Organization. To celebrate the event, the Centenary International Labour Conference, which brought together the 187 ILO member states, workers' and employers' organizations in June, adopted two major instruments.

The first is the Centenary Declaration for the future of work. This document provides guidance to advance social justice and decent work in a context in which labour markets are increasingly impacted by rapid cycles of technological innovation. The second instrument is the International Labour Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, supplemented by a recommendation on the same topic.

Many have argued that it was about time for the international community to adopt such a treaty as violence and harassment at work have been persistent characteristics of labour markets for years across the globe. According to the latest edition of the ILO Working Conditions in a Global Perspective report covering 1.2 billion workers, up to 12 percent of them said they had been subject to verbal abuse, humiliating behavior, bullying, unwanted sexual attention or sexual harassment.

These 12 percent might well be only the tip of the iceberg, because all research carried out by the ILO and other institutions point to the existence of a taboo whereby the victims of violence and harassment tend to keep silent out of fear of losing their jobs or of being stigmatized. This new Convention aims at changing this reality.

For the first time, the Convention gives an international definition of violence and harassment: "a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices" that "aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm". This definition is broad enough to encompass all forms of undesirable acts and attitudes while respecting cultural diversity.

Further, the coverage is not limited to employees with a labour contract but includes anyone who works, irrespective of contractual arrangements. The Convention protects against all forms of violence and harassment including those that are gender-based.

This is of particular importance as women represent the overwhelming majority of victims. Ensuring that female workers are free from violence is not only a matter of fundamental human rights, it is also essential to change unequal power relations in the labour market and ensure women's equal participation.

China has been active in promoting gender equality, from policy to action in line with its overall objective of building a people-centered society with high quality development. In November 1990, China ratified the ILO Equal Remuneration Convention, 1951 (No.100) through which the country committed to ensuring equal pay to men and women for work of equal value. And in January 2006, China ratified the ILO Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111).

These were very important steps. Also, at the national level, a series of laws and regulations have emphasized women's equal rights in employment including the Law on the Protection of Rights and Interests of Women (2005), the Employment Promotion Law (2007) and the Special Rules on the Labour Protection of Female Employees (2012).

Last February, China's Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security together with other eight national institutions issued a new policy aimed at eliminating discrimination in recruitment. The policy prohibits direct discrimination such as gender-specific job announcements or questions related to the candidates' marital or parental status during job interviews. Soon after, local governments released regional versions of the policy according to their specific situation.

The All-China Federation of Trade Unions also made an important contribution by publishing in March its Handbook for Promoting Gender Equality at Workplace to help female workers access equal opportunities and remuneration, maternity protection and a better work-life balance.

Although China's female labour participation rate ranks among the top world performers, since the 1990's the rate has been declining. One of the reasons for this decline might be the overall improvement in livelihoods combined with certain difficulties women face in complying with their professional obligations and their care duties.

These difficulties might become even more acute in the light of the recently adopted two-child family policy in a context of a rapidly aging population. Women having to care for two children and their parents might decide to delay further their participation in the labour market.

This calls for a transformative and measurable agenda to address the multiple obstacles women face in the world of work. In addition to the creation of a safe working environment for women, a transformative agenda for gender equality includes concrete improvements in balancing work obligations and family responsibilities.

It also implies changing perceptions, combating gender stereotype and promoting equal participation of men and women within the household and at the workplace. Ultimately, a transformative agenda implies reviewing the provision of care in our societies and working toward a fair redistribution of care duties among public authorities, the private sector and men and women workers.

Eliminating violence and harassment at the workplace is crucial to achieve greater gender equality and shape a future that works for all men and women. It requires joint interventions to break the silence and create a zero-tolerance environment.

These important issues will be discussed on Monday and Tuesday in a Conference on Gender Equality and the Future of Work. It has been co-organized by the ILO and UN Women as part of their commitment to work with their Chinese partners toward the realization of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

OpEd published in ChinaDaily