It’s Time to Stand Up for Happier Workplaces. Here’s How.

A renewed global effort is underway to protect people from violence and harassment in the workplace. Photo: Kate Ferguson
A renewed global effort is underway to protect people from violence and harassment in the workplace. Photo: Kate Ferguson

By Haidy Ear-Dupuy

A landmark international agreement designed to eliminate violence and harassment in the workplace has been passed. Now comes the hard part.

On average a person can spend more than 90,000 hours at work over their lifetime.  How we are treated during working hours can make a massive difference to our mental and physical health.  So why don’t we pay more attention to it?

Thankfully, that’s happening. In June this year, the 108th International Labor Conference comprising members of worker and employer groups, and governments adopted the convention to eliminate violence and harassment in the workplace. Dubbed Convention 190, the document is a legally binding instrument of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and its member countries. 

The Convention will come into force a year after it is ratified by two countries—like most ILO conventions. The ILO is confident it will be quickly ratified. Hopefully its optimism is justified as the measures would make a substantial contribution to the achievement of Sustainable Development Goal 8—decent work and economic growth—by recognizing the importance of a safer work environment.

Adoption of the Convention and its accompanying recommendation concludes a four-year long journey for many advocates, but the work is not over.  The real work begins now as governments, employers, institutions, and workers need to consider and translate the Convention into each organization’s and country’s context.

The Convention is a transformative document. For the first time, a definition has been established for violence and harassment in the workplace.  Convention 190 states that violence and harassment are: “A range of unacceptable behaviors and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment.” 

The reference to behaviors and practices is important as it recognizes that some actions may be considered everyday occurrences, but that doesn’t make them acceptable if they can cause harm to others, whether “psychological, economic,” or for that matter extreme “physical” and “sexual” harm.

The definition recognizes that violence and harassment can be a continuum that ranges from the unseen effect of damaging a person’s mental well-being to the more visible physical well-being, and even to harming their income.  Harassed and scared workers are unlikely to perform as well or be as productive as colleagues not suffering harassment. Investing in a strong and clear human resource policy that outlines zero tolerance for harassment and abuse can strengthen support systems for workers and foster trust in the work environment and the company.

The Convention thoughtfully extends coverage to all workers in all sectors; covering all types of contracts, persons in training, interns, apprentices, volunteers, job seekers, job applicants, people whose contracts have been terminated, and even third parties like service providers, customers, and clients.  This helps ensure that everyone seeking to enter the job market and those who exited the market through no fault of their own are protected from abuse. 

Moreover, the Convention defines a work environment to include “work-related trips, travel, training, events and social activities along with work-related communications” including ICT use.  The commute should also be safe from harassment and violence.  The Convention also encourages workers’ and employers’ organizations, governments, other labor market groups to work together to support workers suffering from domestic violence by provide them with institutional support through flexible human resource policies.

  Here’s a chance to stand up for happier, safer workplaces

Convention 190 aims to make the working world better for workers. But it will take genuine leadership to apply it in the real world. This task will fall largely to those of us working in civil society, governments, the private sector, and multilateral institutions. 

While we wait for the Convention to come into force, there are five immediate steps which can start making it a reality:

  1. Review national and institutional policies to ensure they address how workers are supported in cases of violence and harassment.   Examine the labor laws of countries and human resource policies of institutions, to assess how well they address violence and harassment in the workplace and ask if they are aligned with the Convention’s definitions of terms, identification of workers, and definitions of the work environment. 
  2. Harmonize existing occupational safety and health laws, discrimination or equal rights opportunity legislation, and any gender-related legislation to ensure that violence and harassment in the workplace is reflected or referenced.  Identify how these different laws work together to strengthen worker protections.  Is there adequate social infrastructure to support workers?  What social work or medical facilities are there to support workers who have psychological or physical problems? 
  3. Ask whether existing institutions or laws provide enough protection for workers who speak out about abuse.  What system or channels are there for workers to raise their concerns and how are these concerns documented and addressed? Are there protections for those who dare to voice their concerns?
  4. Address any funding gaps in support of programs and laws so that reforms are properly funded. Any institutions that are connected to worker protection should be adequately resourced so they can work effectively.
  5. Employers and governments should collect data on violence and harassment and regularly review policies and processes to address any outstanding issues. 

At present, there is insufficient information on workplace violence and harassment as workers are reluctant to report and would rather quit their job, often citing other reasons for leaving. The adoption of Convention 190 shows that it’s time to retire this kind of thinking. 

It’s a chance to stand up for happier, safer workplaces, unleashing the potential of each and every worker to help deliver inclusive and sustainable growth.