Gender-based violence

“STOP Violence at Work”

Remarks by the ILO Director-General at the event to mark International Women's Day 2013.

Statement | Geneva | 08 March 2013
Dr Harland Scott,
Brenda Cuthbert of the Jamaica Employers’ Federation,
Sarah Fox of the AFL-CIO,

Thank you all for being here today.

Video highlights
ILO panel for International Women's Day 2013
The struggle for justice, equality and for women workers’ rights are deeply embedded in the history of International Women’s Day. So I think that the ILO is a good place to be on 8 March!

At the very beginning it was demonstrations against poor working conditions by women garment workers in New York, as early as March 1857, which pointed the way forward.

Later, 1911, the year of the first truly international observance of International Women’s Day, also saw the tragic Triangle Factory Fire, actually in the same city of New York and also in the month of March, when over 140 garment workers – nearly all women, nearly all recent migrants, some as young as 14 years of age, lost their lives.

Today, over a century later, we have to remember that such tragedies, shamefully, are still happening. And as we look back at events in Europe which marked the first international observance of Women’s Day in 1911, one aspect relevant to our gathering today is that alongside the political demands for the right to vote and to hold political office, were the demand for the right to work, to vocational training and for an end to discrimination at work.

I think we will all recognize that this struggle for equality, for safety, for respect, for security continues today – and it cuts across the globe, wherever we come from. The challenges assume different forms – some open, others less so. The job is not done.

And, of the various manifestations of sex discrimination which remain to be eliminated, we would all agree, I am sure, that gender-based violence is exceptionally dehumanizing, pervasive and oppressive.

So putting an end to gender-based violence at work seems to me to be integral to the ILO’s objective of promoting decent work for all women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.

Violence in the world of work is deeply injurious to women and men and there are obvious consequences for their families, and societies and communities. This is a human rights issue, as well as a health, education, legal and socio-economic problem. Women are often particularly vulnerable to violence – whether because of the nature of their jobs or their overall status in society.

Now, I have no doubt, we are all united by the compelling moral imperative to put an end to gender-based violence. But, there is also a strong business case for eliminating workplace violence. The costs to enterprises include absenteeism, increased turnover, lower job performance and productivity, negative public image, legal/litigation fees and related costs, and rising insurance premiums. For workers, obviously such situations can lead to heightened stress, loss of motivation, increased accidents and disability, and even death. Integrated, gender-responsive occupational safety and health policies and a preventive culture make a positive difference and we must move forward on that basis.

The ILO’s standards provide guidance for action and I want to mention four of those standards in particular:

First, the Convention on Equality in Employment and Occupation, No. 111 and its use to improve law and practice on sexual harassment;

Secondly, our Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Peoples, No. 169 that requires ratifying governments to adopt special measures to ensure that indigenous workers are protected from sexual harassment;

Thirdly, and more recently, the landmark Domestic Workers Convention, No. 189 bans all forms of abuse, harassment and violence with respect to this highly vulnerable and highly feminized group of workers; and

Fourthly, the HIV and AIDS Recommendation, No. 200 requires workplace measures to reduce the transmission of HIV and alleviate its impact by actions to prevent and prohibit violence and harassment.

Our colleague Michel Sidibé of UNAIDS has emphasized today how important the elimination of violence against women is to the elimination of HIV/AIDS.

Other highly ratified texts, like the child labour and occupational safety and health (OSH) Conventions, are also very relevant to combating violence at work.

We are all aware that much still remains to be done legally as in other areas. There is still no explicit international human rights treaty prohibition on violence against women and regrettably, the issue still remains poorly defined and understood under international human rights law and often in labour and industrial relations.

I think that all of these represent avenues for future work by the ILO and other agencies. But there is already much contextual experience within the ILO on effectively tackling violence at work, including its expression in sexual and other forms of harassment and physical, verbal or psychological abuse, intimidation, mobbing and bullying.

In certain areas where the workforce is highly feminized, women are particularly exposed to violence. In the civil aviation sector to take an example, IATA statistics on ‘air rage’ pointed to a dramatic increase between 2007 and 2009 with airport check-in workers and other ground staff experiencing high levels of verbal abuse, even physical assault. Much of it directly affects women.

ILO tools and guides have been developed and offer a package of approaches with a strong sectoral focus, for example guidelines addressing workplace violence in the health sector and the Code of Conduct against violence in the services sector, again both with highly feminized workforces.

On another front, which I want to emphasize, the progressive development of social protection floors being promoted by the UN System as a whole, with the ILO taking a lead role, is an avenue for multi-sectoral remedial action. Because by guaranteeing basic income in the form of social transfers, and providing universal access to affordable social services like healthcare and housing, such floors attack the poverty which underlies many situations of violence against women, and can provide critical assistance directly to victims.

Our discussion today builds on the totality of our experience in assisting diverse groups who may be particularly subject to violence in the workplace. They may include migrant workers, child labourers, ethnic minorities, workers in the informal sector, rural workers, domestic workers and those at risk of HIV infection.

As we assess what it will take to end gender-based violence in the world of work, areas for action have to include:
  • Coherent and effective labour laws and enforcement mechanisms so that proactive laws as well as individual complaint-based mechanisms discourage violence;
  • We need consistency between labour codes and criminal, civil or family laws and other bodies of law covering not only sanctions, but also incentives to ‘buy into’ the fight against violence at work;
  • We need removal of obstacles to women’s access to justice, including labour justice; and
  • Lastly, we need a particular focus on the informal economy – and the ILO is working on this area – because this is where so many women work, often hidden and unprotected.

At a time when ending violence against women and girls has taken centre stage in the international media and is high on the political agenda of many countries, it is a really important opportunity to make significant, concrete progress.

I hope that this tripartite discussion will allow good practices in the world of work to be shared and to give further impetus, further commitment to action to “Stop violence at work”.