Stopping Sexual Abuse on the Job Begins With Empowering Workers

Stopping Sexual Abuse on the Job Begins With Empowering Workers

Stopping Sexual Abuse on the Job Begins With Empowering Workers

Across the world, workers are unionizing to hold corporations accountable for sexual harassment and assault in the workplace.


Chicago hotel housekeepers will report to work with a new piece of gear in the coming months: not buckets and gloves, but a small electronic alarm, which they can sound if they encounter the occupational hazard that’s haunted them silently for years: a sexual attack.

The “panic button” fits in a housekeeper’s palm, but it’s the product of a massive public campaign led by the hotel workers union, UNITE HERE, for a local law to provide the devices as part of standard safety gear. More than an emergency technology, it’s a symbol of solidarity and recognition amid a culture of fear and silence. But the button just marks a start of a global conversation on redressing and preventing gender-based violence at work.

The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco, and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), the international confederation of UNITE HERE, is sounding a global alarm, campaigning for an International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention against gender-based violence.

On the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the IUF called on corporations, coworkers, and unions to fight all forms of workplace gender-based discrimination and violence. As the IUF observed, “This violence happens because of men abusing their power and authority at work and in recruitment or promotion, men as co-workers, men as guests or customers, men as spouses or relatives, and all the men who do nothing about it.”

A policy brief from the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) envisions an ILO convention that addresses gender-based violence across the “world of work,” building on other international human-rights protocols and conventions on women’s rights, to address gender-based violence as both a civil-rights and workplace-safety issue; provide equal protection regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender or sexual identity; and go beyond just worker disciplining, with investment in education and organizing for worker empowerment.

Experiences of gender-based violence are global in scope, yet intimately tied to local social and economic factors. In the Global South, the disproportionate poverty women experience is inseparable from the trading networks and multinational investors controlling the domestic economy. In Bangladesh’s garment industry, for instance, globalization fuels highly gender-segregated labor forces that are prone to discrimination and abuse. Within a country’s borders too, inequality heightens risk in the precarious low-wage jobs where migrants, women of color, and trans women are especially vulnerable to violence and discrimination. In rich and poor countries, a lack of protection from psychological and physical harm leaves women too intimidated to challenge bosses on health and safety issues, complain about wage theft, or organize unions. Workers who face daily harassment at work probably won’t dare protest when they spot a blocked fire-safety exit at the back of their factories.

The insecurity goes beyond the confines of the workplace. Women workers are structurally disempowered if intimate-partner abuse prevents them from achieving economic independence. Even the daily commute on a public bus can expose workers to constant harassment.

Domestic policies can set standards but often have limited influence on everyday workplace cultures. Although a survey of 80 countries by the ILO found that the majority had some protections against work-related sexual abuse, these were not always prioritized by law enforcement, and compliance monitoring fell to under-resourced labor inspectors. While it seems counterintuitive that women are protected more from an abusive home than from a violent workplace, the ILRF explains, “Victims who do file a claim may not immediately have the option of seeking safe haven, such as a safe house, as they might in cases of domestic violence. Instead, they may have to continue working alongside the perpetrator as their case wends its way through an internal company grievance process or the courts.”

But different forms of workers’ empowerment overlap as well. Globalization has also spawned creative, women-led labor movements in Bangladesh, where worker-turned-organizer Kalpona Akter has spearheaded global campaigns for workplace safety across Walmart’s industrial and retail-supply chains. The Women’s Committee of the Pan-Latin American banana plantation union Colsiba, founded in the 1990s to “lift women’s roles within the family, community and union,” has achieved gender parity in union leadership, and established a regional code of conduct with Chiquita that mandates zero tolerance for sexual harassment.

Business-labor accords have been established for IUF workers of the global service vendors Sodexo and Unilever, with comprehensive grievance procedures, which extend to third-party suppliers, to ensure that workers at subcontracted workplaces have protections comparable to workers at the parent company. The IUF, which helped negotiate the Chiquita, Sodexo, and Uniliver agreements, stresses that the contracts “were only made possible because there already existed a negotiated space for engagement” with the union, according to Equality Officer Barbro Budin. “They set a benchmark for other companies to follow, because no company can legitimately claim that there are mechanisms in place for providing remedy for rights violations at the workplace in the absence of union recognition and collective bargaining.”

In the United States,the AFL-CIO has joined the push for a global convention to provide a comprehensive template for union collective-bargaining contracts and other industry-based agreements. As with UNITE HERE’s hotel-labor policy, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has established an accountability system for Florida’s tomato-farming industry, which can investigate and resolve claims of sexual abuse through independent labor monitors. In academic workplaces as well, unionized graduate-student workers have created grievance mechanisms to redress sexual abuse on campus.

Despite the recent advances of women in the workforce, the recent spate of sexual-harassment scandals shows that sexism and misogyny remain pervasive in the world of work, and the United States needs a global convention on workplace gender justice as much as any other country. As ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart explains, “People in the US…talk about the same problems, but they don’t use human-rights language necessarily, and we’ve got to change that.”

In multinational industries, she adds, employers have sound reasons to support “a global framework to address this problem in their supply chains.” If a convention can provide for consistent legal standards and lines of accountability for managers, unions, and workers, “it’s to their benefit to have this codified in international norms, because it also gives them something to follow in their policies and it means that the national laws in the different countries where they operate will improve to address the problem.”

At too many workplaces, workers’ bodies are abused and degraded as much as their labor is. So for the Chicago hotel housekeeper who faces threats at every turn each day at work, even the small reassurance of a panic button helps amplify the collective voice of fellow workers who are refusing silence.

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