On 21 June 2019, the International Labour Organization (ILO) adopted the landmark ILO Convention No. 190 (Convention concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work). The labour standards set in this Convention were negotiated over a two year period by ILO member governments, workers’ representatives, and employers’ organizations. The adoption of Convention No. 190 is itself revolutionary, considering that an estimated around 500 million working-age women live in countries are reported not to have any legal protections against harassment at work. The World Bank reported in 2018 that “in 59 countries, women are not legally protected from workplace sexual harassment. The lack of legal protection is observed in 70% of the economies in the Middle East and North Africa, half (50%) in East Asia and the Pacific, and one-third (33.3%) in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
In this post, I examine the key landmark detailed provisions of ILO Convention No. 190, and why they present significantly higher protections than the more rudimentary and general provisions in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) as well as the protections against sexual harassment indicated in the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). In my view, ILO Convention No. 190 largely closes the global regulatory gap on workplace sexual harassment, not just by repeating ICESCR and CEDAW protections, but by adopting the most sweeping application of these protections (and even more substantive protections) to all the foreseeable permutations and changing employment arrangements today in the world of work. Institutionally, the adoption of ILO Convention No. 190 also formally opens the door for ILO’s regular supervisory system to ensure this treaty’s implementation by States ratifying ILO Convention No. 190, including special procedures under the ILO Constitution, such as the complaints procedure (Articles 26 to 34 of the ILO Constitution) enabling any ILO Member State to file a complaint with the ILO if it finds that any other ILO Member State is not “securing effective observance of any Convention which both have ratified”. The ILO Governing Body can refer the complaint to a Commission of Inquiry for investigation. If the respondent ILO Member State does not accept the recommendations of the Commission on Inquiry, the ILO can propose to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice. The expansive protections against workplace sexual harassment afforded in ILO Convention No. 190 to all persons (including women) could thus also be more strongly protected in the international legal system as well as in domestic legal systems.
In the age of MeToo and the increasing global awareness that vulnerabilities to workplace sexual harassment are highest in non-traditional work settings and arrangements where power imbalances are sharpest, ILO Convention No. 190 places human dignity at the center of the global regulatory paradigm. It will be much harder for workplace sexual harassers and those who commit violence at the workplace to escape and avoid legal responsibility anywhere in the world.