Informal workers applaud passage of new international standard on ending violence and harassment

By | June 22, 2019

The International Labour Conference (ILC) has voted to adopt Convention 190 on Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (C190). This marks a significant victory for informal workers—especially women—whose organizations advocated tirelessly to ensure this Convention addresses the realities of some of the world’s most vulnerable workers.

The majority of the world’s workers don’t work in offices or factories. They work in private homes or in public spaces like streets and landfills. They are domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors, waste pickers and other informal workers. In their daily work lives, they are vulnerable to myriad forms of harassment and violence, and often lack the power to protect themselves or to seek justice. Women informal workers are particularly vulnerable, and face gender-based forms of physical, sexual and psychological violence.

For the past two weeks, representatives of informal workers have made their voices heard at the ILC in Geneva, laying out their challenges and their demands. With the passage of C190, “the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment” is established as a new labour right and can be drawn on to protect informal workers around the globe.

Hard-fought gains by informal workers
WIEGO’s International Coordinator, Sally Roever, notes there are many victories in the Convention for informal workers, who represent 61 per cent of the world’s labour force.

“The Convention allows for a broad definition of workers that includes those working without formal contracts. Further, there is a broad definition of ‘the world of work’, mentioning for example public and private spaces, rather than a narrow term like ‘workplace’, and a broad definition of violence and harassment so that both can be viewed as occurring on a spectrum,” Roever explained. “The language covers work as it actually exists in the world, not just in labour economics.”

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Sonia George from the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an affiliate of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and a WIEGO delegate, said these points are critical to the two billion people who earn their livelihoods outside of formal work arrangements.

George described the complexity of many poor women’s work lives—they might tend to someone else’s children and household in the morning, sew clothing in the afternoon as part of a global supply chain, then prepare food to sell in the streets—all in pursuit of a decent livelihood.

“In every one of these roles, they do not have a formal employer or go to a conventional workplace—yet in every role they can face violence and harassment because of the multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination they experience due to their gender, class, ethnicity, caste, age or migrant status,” she said. “These women informal workers must have protection, and that’s what we were here to fight for.”

A victory for domestic workers
Domestic Workers will also benefit from the Convention, which includes “private spaces” as a workplace. Regulations intended to protect workers have typically excluded the private home, where domestic workers too often experience diverse forms of gender-based violence due to the unequal power relations that characterize their employment relationship. The Convention’s reference to “third parties” as possible perpetrators is also important to domestic workers, who suffer from violence and harassment perpetrated by family members, guests or relatives.

The important role of public authorities
Representatives from street vendors’ and from waste pickers’ organizations were also part of WIEGO’s delegation. Lorraine Sibanda, President of StreetNet International, says those who work in public spaces have little protection from harassment or brutality. The perpetrators might be criminals or they might be local authorities. In either case, informal workers say police too often ignore their complaints.

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“Informal economy workers and street vendors who work in public spaces suffer from physical, moral and sexual violence Sibanda said. The abuses include brutal evictions, confiscation of goods, arrests, extortion of bribes and other types of assault carried out by local authorities.

StreetNet and waste picker representatives successfully proposed the inclusion of language in the Convention that specifically names the role of public authorities in protecting informal economy workers and the overall responsibility of governments to ensure proper implementation of the Convention, which includes protecting workers from harassment and following due process.

This marks the first time public authorities are specifically mentioned in an ILO instrument as an important government structure for informal workers. The clause ensures authorities can be held accountable for all measures implemented by federal governments.

The impact of domestic violence on the world of work
Convention 190 also notes that domestic violence has an impact on workers—especially women workers—and their livelihoods. It lays out measures that governments, employers and workers’ organizations can take to support survivors of domestic violence.

An important first step
WIEGO’s Roever notes that the breadth of this Convention is the result of the strong voices and diligent, focused work of women informal workers and their organizations and networks—not just over the past few weeks, but for many years, and in particular in the two years leading up to this historic day.

An ILO Convention is a vital catalyst for change—but it is just the beginning. Informal workers’ organizations will now begin the hard work of organizing and advocating for the ratification and implementation of C190 in countries around the world.

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Demetria Tsoutouras (in Ottawa): +1 +613 882 3364; (English and Spanish)

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