On 100th Anniversary, ILO Combats Sexual Harassment and Violence at Work

From June 10-21, government, worker, and employer representatives from around the world assembled in Geneva, Switzerland, for a special edition of the International Labor Conference (ILC).
On 100th Anniversary, ILO Combats Sexual Harassment and Violence at Work

ILO delegates in Geneva celebrate the adoption of the Violence and Harassment Convention and Recommendation 2019.

By Paul Whitehead

[Editor’s Note:  In recent years, the Center’s Professor of Practice Paul Whitehead has attended the ILO’s International Labor Conference as an observer with the U.S. worker delegation.  Here’s his report from the Conference held June 10-21.]

Government, worker, and employer representatives from around the world recently assembled in Geneva, Switzerland, for the 108th International Labour Conference (ILC) of the International Labour Organization (ILO).  This year of 2019 marked the 100th anniversary of the ILO, and because delegates to the ILC took the occasion as an opportunity to examine the ILO’s past and future, their gathering made for something of a Conference “plus.” 

One example of the specialness of the occasion was the number of world leaders who came to the ILC to recognize its century-long impact.  Special invitees included dozens of heads of government who ordinarily would not attend an ILC, such as British Prime Minister (Theresa May), French President (Emmanuel Macron), and German Chancellor (Angela Merkel), among others.  Leader after leader recounted high and low moments in the ILO’s past.  In connection with the anniversary, the ILO has prepared a wide range of new publications, including a surprisingly engaging ‘coffee table book” on its history that may be found at https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/forthcoming-publications/WCMS_706764/lang--en/index.htm.  But not everything at the 2019 ILC was about the past. 

Three years ago, in anticipation of its approaching Centenary, the ILO launched a wide-ranging study and discussion on The Future of Work, scheduling a series of discussions and events to culminate at the 2019 ILC.  The lead-up activity included the appointment of a Global Commission on the Future of Work and its eventual publication of a 2018 Report on that topic. 

The Global Commission was headed by co-chairs South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven, each of whom addressed the 2019 ILC delegates on key highlights of their Commission’s Report.  Those focused on the digital revolution in work, how artificial intelligence may affect the future of jobs, the scourge of growing inequality, and the continuing importance of freedom of association and collective bargaining.  https://www.ilo.org/global/publications/books/WCMS_662410/lang--en/index.htm

Using the Report and its draft of a Declaration as a launching pad, Conference delegates went to work negotiating, finalizing, and adopting a 2019 Centenary Declaration.  https://www.ilo.org/ilc/ILCSessions/108/committees/committee-of-the-whole/WCMS_711674/lang--en/index.html.

In addition to all of the “long views” on the role of the ILO, the 2019 Conference also tackled its perennial and even everyday work, including that of supervising its member states’ compliance with ratified Conventions.  And in the realm of standards, the ILC adopted a brand-new international labor norm entitled the Convention Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work [full text available at https://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---relconf/documents/meetingdocument/wcms_711242.pdf]. 

That new Convention exemplifies how the ILO continues to work toward making workplaces more decent.  In the next year or two, members states will begin to ratify the Violence and Harassment Convention, and that will pledge them to promoting “an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach for the prevention and elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.” 

The new Convention No. 190 achieves broad coverage, aiming as it does to eliminate all gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, and whether the latter is of a general ‘bullying’ or gender-discriminatory kind.  What’s more, it protects all workers of any kind (regardless of contractual status) in both the public and private, and formal and informal, sectors, as well as job applicants and  interns.  Altogether, the world’s governments, employers, and worker representatives made a major stride toward the prevention and elimination of sexual harassment. 

In sum, it was a busy and productive International Labour Conference in Geneva this year.

[As readers of this newsletter will know, the ILO is the oldest branch of the United Nations, and through a system of tri-partite governance, it conducts research, provides technical assistance, and sets and supervises international labor standards (ILS’s).  Its annual conferences serve as its supreme deliberative body. 

Since its creation in 2012, the Center -- through Professor Mark Anner and several post-doctoral scholars, including historian Jill Jensen – has worked cwith representatives of the ILO on a range of activities including research, data collection, the mapping of compliance with ILS’s, and course development.]