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A Chance to Protect Workers from Violence and Harassment

Governments Should Address Gaps in Prevention at Upcoming ILO Conference

Bangladeshis work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 19, 2018.  © 2019 AP Photo/A.M. Ahad

Is workplace violence and harassment a human rights violation? The answer is a resounding yes.

Human Rights Watch has documented sexual violence and harassment against women workers in garment factories, agriculture, meat processing plants, and domestic work. These include workers who have been verbally harassed, grabbed, threatened with violence, assaulted, and raped. They have been asked or forced to provide sexual favors to keep their jobs or avoid demotions.

Now there is a new opportunity to protect these workers around the world.

Beginning June 10, labor officials, trade unions, and employers’ associations from around the world will meet at the International Labor Conference in Geneva to negotiate a new international treaty on workplace harassment and violence.

The proposed treaty, and an accompanying, non-binding recommendation, would provide concrete guidance on steps governments should take to protect workers from harassment and violence.

Most governments acknowledge that as a matter of international law, workplace violence and harassment is a human rights violation. But a handful of governments, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Bangladesh, have pushed back against a sentence stating this in the treaty’s preamble.

Last week, a group of independent United Nations and regional experts on women’s rights weighed in with a powerful statement. These are the authorities tasked with monitoring and interpreting international human rights law.

The experts pointed to 25 years of jurisprudence entrenching women and girls’ right to be free of violence – including in the workplace. They warned against an “unacceptable erosion of the global consensus that violence and harassment against women and girls are human rights violations” and called on governments “to safeguard existing standards on sexual harassment.”

Workers should be able to work safely and with dignity. It is time for all governments to embrace these established norms and focus precious time during next week’s negotiations to iron out specific ways they can uphold their duty to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace.

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