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Last edited: July 06, 2020

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3.1 United Nations

The United Nations and its specialized agencies have an important role to play within the international legal and policy framework to address violence and harassment against women in the world of work, including through the following instruments:

  • The ILO Declaration of Philadelphia, 1944, affirms that “all human beings, irrespective of race, creed or sex, have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity” (ILO, 1944, Article II(a)).  
  • The ILO Convention No. 111 covers sexual harassment, understood by the CEACR as a form of discrimination based on sex. In its general observation from 2003, the CEACR “urges governments to take appropriate measures to prohibit sexual harassment in employment and occupation” and notes that sexual harassment “undermines equality at work by calling into question integrity and dignity and the well-being of workers…[and]…damages the enterprise by weakening the bases upon which work relationships are build and impairing productivity” (ILO, 2003, p. 463).    
  • The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, 1979, provides that “State Parties shall take appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the field of employment in order to ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women, the same rights…” (Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, 1979, article 11). When interpreting this provision, General Recommendation No. 19 states that “Equality in employment can be seriously impaired when women are subjected to gender-specific violence, such as sexual harassment in the workplace” (CEDAW, 1992, Article 11, para. 17). General Recommendation No. 35 states that gender-based violence against women occurs in public and private spaces and all areas of human interaction, including “…the family, the community, public spaces, the workplace, leisure, politics, sport, health services, educational settings and the redefinition of public and private through technology-mediated environments, such as contemporary forms of violence occurring online and in other digital environments” (CEDAW, 2017, para. 20)
  • The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, 1995, refers to sexual harassment as a form of violence against women and calls for governments, employers, trade unions, community and youth organizations and non-governmental organizations to “develop programmes and procedures to eliminate sexual harassment and other forms of violence against women in all educational institutions, workplaces and elsewhere” (UN, 1995, para. 126).  

3.1.1 ILO Fundamental principles and rights at work and international labour standards

Closely connected to eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work, including violence and harassment against women, is the importance of respecting, promoting and realizing fundamental principles and rights at work (ILO 1998), notably:

  • Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining
  • The elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour
  • The effective abolition of child labour
  • The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation

ILO Convention No. 111 is an essential treaty providing a framework to address sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is considered a form of sex discrimination covered by the Convention.[1] The Convention can be used to help integrate a gender dimension into world of work initiatives, including measures to address sexual harassment and violence through collective bargaining.[2]

Furthermore, other ILO standards address certain elements or forms of violence and harassment against women, particularly where this affects specific groups of workers, such as:

  • The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (No. 169) requires Governments to take measures to ensure that “workers belonging to these peoples enjoy equal opportunities and equal treatment in employment for men and women, and protection from sexual harassment” (ILO, 1989, No. 169, para. 20.3 (d)).
  • The Maternity Protection Convention (No. 183) and Recommendation (No. 191), 2000, seeks to ensure the rights of mothers and pregnant women, including their protection against discrimination.
  • The HIV and AIDS Recommendation, 2010 (No. 200) requires the adoption of measures “to prevent and prohibit violence and harassment in the workplace” (ILO, 2010, No. 200, para. 14(c)).
  • The Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189) requires that Members ratifying the Convention ensure effective protection against violence, abuse and harassment for domestic workers (ILO, 2011c, No. 189, Article 5). Mechanisms to protect domestic workers include establishing accessible complaint mechanisms, ensuring that all complaints are investigated and establishing programmes for relocation from the household and rehabilitation of domestic workers (ILO, 2011b, No. 201, para. 7).
  • The Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930, sets up measures to prevent forced or compulsory labour including measures to protect workers, in particular migrant workers, from possible abusive and fraudulent recruitment and placement practices (ILO, 2014b, Article 2(d)).
  • The Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation, 2015 (No. 204) provides that States should ensure that an integrated policy framework to facilitate the transition to the formal economy addresses the promotion of equality and the elimination of all forms of discrimination and violence, including gender-based violence, at the workplace (ILO, 2015b, No. 204, para.11 (f)).
  • The Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205) states that, in responding to discrimination arising from or exacerbated by conflicts or disasters, Members should “prevent and punish all forms of gender-based violence, including rape, sexual exploitation and harassment, and protect and support victims” (ILO, 2017b, No. 205, para. 15(e)).

At the present time, violence and harassment is addressed for specific groups in specific contexts through different international instruments. That being said, the ILO is carrying out a standard-setting process with a view to the adoption of a Convention supplemented by a Recommendation, specifically addressing violence and harassment in the world of work (ILO, 2018c).

[1] In 2003 the CEACR expressed the view that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and urged governments to take appropriate measures to prohibit it. In 2012 the CEACR clarified that ‘the scope of the protection against sexual harassment should cover all employees, male and female, with respect not only to employment and occupation, but also vocational education and training, access to employment and conditions of employment’. See: ILO (2003) op cit, p.463; ILO (2012) Giving globalization a human face: General Survey on the fundamental Conventions concerning rights at work in light of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, Report III (Part 1B), International Labour Conference, 101st Session, para. 793.

[2] ‘Collective bargaining can ensure the systematic integration of gender dimensions into labour market and macroeconomic policies in general, and address specific issues such as the gender pay gap, enhanced protection against discrimination, work–family measures and childcare infrastructure, sexual violence and harassment, and the promotion of female employment.’ ILO (2009) Resolution on gender equality at the heart of decent work. (para. 37). See also language considered in the first discussion of the International Labour Conference, stressing that Members should take appropriate measures to “encourage collective bargaining at all levels as a means of preventing and addressing violence and harassment in the world of work and dealing with  the effects of domestic violence on the world of work” and to “support such collective bargaining through the collection and dissemination of information on related trends and good practices regarding the negotiation process and the content of collective agreements” (ILO (2018e) Reports of the Standard-Setting Committee: Resolution and proposed Conclusions submitted for adoption by the Conference. Provisional Record 8A (Geneva), para. 19(a).