Over the recent past, the world has witnessed, through the media, a rise in accusations and public outcry against widespread patterns of abuse and sexual harassment by powerful men, harassing and assaulting women at work in the entertainment industry, politics, and other fields. This resulted in high-profile men being sacked or stepping down after being found guilty of abusing their authority.
The highly publicised cases also revealed that these prominent cases of sexual harassment are only the tip of the iceberg, and inspired millions of women worldwide to share their own experiences over the internet, including through social media movements such as #MeToo. While sexual harassment is pervasive, there are other forms of violence in the world of work.
Violence and harassment translate into unacceptable behaviours and practices that cause physical, psychological, sexual, and economic harm, including gender-based violence and harassment. Violence and harassment in the world of work, and in all its forms, affects all genders, and can cause anxiety and deep suffering, and in extreme cases, result in in murder and suicide.
Violence and harassment is pervasive and women are those most affected – causing negative impacts to their lives and careers. Violence and harassment also cost enterprises billions in absenteeism, replacement costs and productivity. In 2018, workplace sexual harassment cost the world $2.6 billion in lost productivity and $0.9 billion in other financial costs.
Quite simply, it deprives people of their dignity, gets in the way of decent work, and is a threat to equal opportunities and to safe, healthy, and productive working environments. It remains a widespread epidemic, present in all countries – including in the Pacific - and across all sectors, occupations, and work arrangements.
On 21 June 2019, during the International Labour Organization’s Centenary Conference, the global community made it clear that violence and harassment, in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment, is unacceptable. They acted decisively by adopting the Violence and Harassment Convention (No. 190) and Recommendation (No. 206), 2019. “The new standards recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment. The next step is to put these protections into practice, so that we create a better, safer, decent, working environment."
Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization, speaking on the adoption of ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 (No. 190)
For the first time, the right to a world of work free from violence and harassment has been articulated in an international treaty. For the first time, there is a clear and common framework to prevent and address violence and harassment, based on an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach."Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General
In 2019, UN Women and ILO joined forces to develop the “Handbook on addressing violence and harassment against women in the world of work” in recognition of the need to both call for real change to achieve safe, healthy and respectful work environments, and to provide stakeholders examples of good practices from governments, employers, trade unions and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace.
We can all work towards safe workplaces for everyone by providing a strong support network and being informed on these issues. We must stop victim blaming. Violence should not be condoned. Change and proactive steps should be taken at all levels to end sexual harassment in the workplace."Nalini Singh, Executive Director, Fiji Women's Rights Movement
Women under siegeWhen we talk about an issue as serious as violence and harassment, there is no room for ‘sugar-coating’ – the statistics in the Pacific are dire.
A 2016 study by The Fiji Women’s Rights Movement revealed that out of one thousand women surveyed, 20 per cent had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace – that is one in every five women. The sectors reporting the highest incidence of harassment were the tourism industry (accommodation, hotels, restaurants and bars), followed by the Public Service, Health, and Retail sectors.
This is especially horrific when we learn that most parts of the Pacific also have one of the world’s highest rates of domestic and sexual violence, with the regional average of 2 in 3 women experiencing intimate partner violence across their lifetimes.
In 2012, the Pacific Island Forum leaders called for ending violence against women and for their economic empowerment through safe workplaces, including in the informal sector. In 2017, the 13th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women made specific recommendations to advance the elimination of sexual harassment in the workplace, calling on the public and private sectors to improve working conditions for women by adopting clear harassment policies.
However, the risk of violence and harassment is even higher during times of crisis: the COVID-19 outbreak has been a sombre reminder of this. Work-related violence and harassment has been reported across countries in the context of COVID-19. Although the majority of Pacific Island countries and territories have dedicated legislation to address domestic violence, many lack explicit violence and harassment laws, and many workplaces do not have clear policies to support women.
Women face numerous barriers to reporting violence – whether at home or at work; barriers which adequate policies and support mechanisms can help to address. Key barriers include access to support and services, harmful social norms which justify violence including harmful patriarchal views which justify men’s violence and control of women. Women’s rights organisations around the region have been at the forefront of both advocating for these barriers to be removed, as well as advocating for improved policies and laws.
These are not ‘small’ or trivial matters, but a serious breach of a person’s fundamental human right to feel safe and be able to earn a decent living.
In Tonga, the women's crisis centre sought to track the impact of the lockdown on survivors, recording a 54 per cent increase in the number of cases coming in during that period. Tracking continues post-lockdown as the true magnitude of the violence is only just emerging."Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Director of Tonga's Women and Children Crisis Centre
A strong message from Pacific governmentsAn agreement of any sort, even a global one, is only as strong as the commitment of its partners; and, just as it has done on several other occasions, the Pacific has not hesitated to step up to the plate. In May 2020, The Fiji Parliament unanimously voted for the ratification of Convention No. 190 – making it the first in Asia and the Pacific and only second in the world.
The UN System, through the ILO, provided technical assistance in various forms to advance this process; including supporting Fiji, Samoa, and Vanuatu’s legal reviews to assess compliance of national legislation, policies and practices with the Violence and Harassment Convention.
In late 2020, Samoa made the commitment to ratify the Convention this year, with ILO already having commenced the legal review process with the government, workers, employers and other stakeholders.
Commendable also is Tonga’s successful establishment of The Sexual Harassment Policy for the Tonga Public Service in March this year; an exercise that ILO provided technical support for in its development stages.
A call to joint action through partnershipsThrough the Violence and Harassment Convention, the United Nations makes its position clear – we stand with Pacific Island governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations, regional academia, civil society, faith-based organizations, women’s rights organisations and youth groups, and media partners to firmly say – Enough is Enough!
On 28 April, UN Women, ILO and the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement will co-host a special side-event on the margins of the 14th Triennial Conference of Pacific Women and 7th Meeting of Pacific Ministers for Women. The session will discuss the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment.
Convened under the title: ‘Ratification of ILO Violence and Harassment Convention 2019 and advancing gender equality in world of work,’ this event will highlight the barriers and challenges that women face in accessing economic opportunities in the informal and formal sectors and highlight how women are driving change which is in turn developing women in leadership positions at the local level.
Ahead of this significant meeting, we once more reaffirm our unwavering support to Pacific Ministers for Women and urge them to lobby unceasingly for their governments’ immediate ratification of the Violence and Harassment Convention.
Humanity cannot miss the opportunity presented to us by this pandemic to concretely shape a more gender-responsive recovery; one that does not fail any part of society.
Follow Matin Karimli, Director, ILO Office for Pacific Island Countries on twitter here: @MatinKarimli