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ILO Convention on Violence and Harassment: Five key questions

For the first time violence and harassment in the world of work are covered in new international labour standards, adopted at the Centenary International Labour Conference and now open for ratification by ILO member States.

Comment | 28 June 2019
By Shauna Olney, Chief, Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch, ILO

Shauna Olney
What is the significance of the Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190) and Recommendation (No. 206)?

The process behind these instruments began in 2015, and – with the recent global outcry against violence and harassment – their adoption could not be more timely or relevant. The Convention is strong and practical. Together with the Recommendation, Convention No. 190 provides a clear framework for action and an opportunity to shape a future of work based on dignity and respect, free from violence and harassment. The right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment has never before been clearly articulated in an international treaty. It also recognizes that such behaviours can constitute a human rights violation or abuse.

These instruments – the first of the ILO’s second century – also reaffirm the ILO’s crucial standard-setting role. They are tangible evidence of the enduring value and strength of social dialogue and tripartism, and social dialogue and tripartism will be essential to implementing them at national level.

What kind of acts come under the definition of “violence and harassment”?

Definitions vary and lines are often blurred. For example sexual “harassment” is often classified as a form of gender-based “violence”. This is why the Conference took a pragmatic approach, defining violence and harassment as “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 potentially covers physical abuse, verbal abuse, bullying and mobbing, sexual harassment, threats and stalking, among other things. The Convention also takes account of the fact that nowadays work does not always take place at a physical workplace; so, for example, it covers work-related communications, including those enabled by ICT.

Who will be protected under the Convention?

The Convention’s focus on inclusivity is very important. It means that everyone who works is protected, irrespective of contractual status, including interns, volunteers, job applicants, and persons exercising the authority of an employer. It applies to the public and private sectors, the formal and informal economy, and urban and rural areas.

Some groups, and workers in certain sectors, occupations and work arrangements are acknowledged to be especially vulnerable to violence and harassment; for example, in health, transport, education and domestic work, or working at night or in isolated areas. The sectors specific to each country will be identified through tripartite consultation.

Gender-based violence and harassment is specifically highlighted, and the approach also takes into account third parties (e.g. clients, customers, service providers and patients) because they can be victims as well as perpetrators.

Importantly, the impact of domestic violence on the world of work is also included. This is a significant step in bringing domestic violence out of the shadows, and changing attitudes. The Recommendation also sets out practical measures, including leave for victims, flexible work arrangements, and awareness-raising.

Is it possible for the Convention to change attitudes?

Changing attitudes is never easy but is essential if we are to eliminate violence and harassment from the world of work. The adoption of strong instruments like this sends a powerful message. It makes the invisible visible, acknowledging the pervasiveness and unacceptability of violence and harassment.

We need to tackle the underlying causes, including multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, gender stereotypes and unequal gender-based power relations.

Workplace risk assessments, as set out in the Convention and detailed further in the Recommendation, can also help to change attitudes because they can take into account factors that increase the likelihood of violence and harassment (such as gender, cultural and social norms). The Convention and Recommendation also call for training and awareness-raising measures.

When does it come into force?

As with most ILO Conventions, Convention No. 190 will enter into force 12 months after two member States have ratified it. Given the high level of support indicated when it was adopted, we are confident it will come into force quickly.

But the Convention will have an impact even before then. All member States are required to bring it to the attention of their competent national authorities, and this ensures the issues receive visibility at national as well as international level.