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.