A recent study by Restaurant Centers Opportunities found that 80 percent of female restaurant workers in the US have been sexually harassed, as well as over half of male workers. Although gender-based violence in the workplace is most common in lower-wage and tipped jobs, it can occur at in any field, and is an increasingly international problem.

In this context, non-profit and public sector groups working on improving labor conditions believe that the International Labor Organization (ILO) could have a critical role to play in ameliorating these risks. In particular, they argue that a potential ILO Convention on Gender-Based Violence would help create international norms to confront the problem and create a base for national-level laws. However, the discussion around this option is still in its infancy.

The ILO is unique among UN agencies for a number of reasons. To begin with, it predates the UN, having been founded after World War I in 1919. Additionally, it has a singular tripartite structure in which each of the 185 member countries sends a representative from the workers, the employers, and the government. The United States, for example, sends the AFL-CIO to represent the workers and the United States Council for International Business (USCIB) to represent the employers. Given that each of the three members in the tripartite structure have an equal vote, approving new conventions requires significant deliberation.

This is because the ILO has a particular protocol for proposing new conventions, known as the Convention Standards Setting Measures.

A recent study by Restaurant Centers Opportunities found that 80 percent of female restaurant workers in the US have been sexually harassed, as well as over half of male workers. Although gender-based violence in the workplace is most common in lower-wage and tipped jobs, it can occur at in any field, and is an increasingly international problem.

In this context, non-profit and public sector groups working on improving labor conditions believe that the International Labor Organization (ILO) could have a critical role to play in ameliorating these risks. In particular, they argue that a potential ILO Convention on Gender-Based Violence would help create international norms to confront the problem and create a base for national-level laws. However, the discussion around this option is still in its infancy.

The ILO is unique among UN agencies for a number of reasons. To begin with, it predates the UN, having been founded after World War I in 1919. Additionally, it has a singular tripartite structure in which each of the 185 member countries sends a representative from the workers, the employers, and the government. The United States, for example, sends the AFL-CIO to represent the workers and the United States Council for International Business (USCIB) to represent the employers. Given that each of the three members in the tripartite structure have an equal vote, approving new conventions requires significant deliberation.

This is because the ILO has a particular protocol for proposing new conventions, known as the Convention Standards Setting Measures. The ILO’s Governing Body meets each November to set the discussion topics for the yearly International Labor Conference (ILC), which occurs in June. For a nation to propose a new convention, all three members of the tripartite structure from their country must be in agreement. 

Once a proposed convention is on the ILC’s agenda, the ILO performs a study to report on all of the member state’s existing laws on that issue, and to explore the depth of the issue which the convention aims to rectify. The report and convention draft are then amended by all member states until an agreement is reached. The standards are adopted by the ILO when a two-thirds majority vote of the ILO’s constituents approves of the Convention, but do not enter into force until they are ratified by two countries legislatures.  

One of the most recent conventions ratified was Convention No. 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. States that ratify the Convention are required to take measures to ensure fair and decent working conditions and to prevent abuse, violence and child labor in domestic employment. The Convention was proposed in 2011 and entered into force in September 2013, and 14 countries have ratified it thus far. 

Even though only 14 countries have ratified the Convention, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that they have already seen positive changes. Nations have changed their domestic criminal codes to reflect the convention, even if they have not ratified it, because of the standard setting power reflected in the broad adoption of ILO conventions. For example, even though the US has not ratified the Convention, Hawaii has taken the initiative to adopt a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights in April 2013, providing domestic workers with minimum wage, overtime, and other protections. Similar bills are pending in other states.

While a convention on gender-based violence in the workplace is not yet in the works, in theory such an option would cover the whole world of work. This would include informal laborers and domestic workers, and the many forms of gender-based violence including, but not limited to, harassment, stalking behavior, threats and abuse. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 35 percent of women experience violence, and between 40 and 50 percent of women experience some sort of harassment at work, with profoundly negative effects on victims’ health and well-being. 

These statistics may seem shocking, but those related to tipped workers and migrant workers are even more sobering. For example, the Solidarity Center estimates that 80 percent of female migrant workers have faced some sort of workplace violence. 

Given the impact of gender-based violence on worker productivity, absenteeism, and turnover rate, businesses too should have an interest in increasing workplace protections.  In the US alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that gender-based violence costs the economy $5.8 billion a year in direct medical and mental health expenditures and lost productivity. Another study estimates that gender-based violence in the workplace in New Zealand costs $3.7 billion a year. 

Although a convention would not immediately abolish gender-based violence in the workplace, it would create norms which could be gradually adopted, nation-by-nation, to form greater workplace protections. It would also serve to create a conversation around an issue which is discussed rarely even though it severely impacts women throughout the world. Discussing the potential for such a convention would be a much needed step in moving the dialogue on this critical problem forward.