Can We Eliminate Gender-Based Violence in the Workplace? Lessons from the Child Labor Movement

Ending child labor has been one of the great development and human rights success stories of the 20th century. We widely accept that child labor is a fundamental human rights abuse. And yet- that was not the case, not so very long ago. I have been onstage at conferences and public events with conservative development economists more times than I care to remember, facing the argument that somehow child labor is part of a ‘natural’ stage of economic development. I have had a fair share of debates with those who claimed that child labor was ‘culturally appropriate’ in poor countries, patiently assuring audiences that, speaking as a cultural anthropologist, I was pretty sure that producing soccer balls for global sporting goods companies wasn’t a longstanding part of local culture.

We saw a dramatic normative shift in our views on child and forced labor over the past two decades. Today we may be seeing a similarly dramatic normative shift in our attitude toward acceptable behavior in the workplace, and what constitutes sexual harassment.

I have spent more than two decades working to raise awareness of the epidemic levels of gender-based violence in the workplace worldwide. When the #MeToo hashtag began to gain steam in early 2017, I was skeptical. I thought I had seen this before — a brief flurry of activity, before the realities facing women in every type of workplace, in every country, were once again ignored because they were seen as just too pervasive to tackle. Too culturally determined. And yet. For the first time, there are reasons to be optimistic about real change.

What happened to allow us to dramatically reduce child labor around the world? The existence of a global movement was critically important. This movement launched an ambitious Global March Against Child Labour in 1998. The march crossed 103 countries and culminated in a conference at the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva in June 1998 where activists called on governments, international organizations, companies and civil society to come together to end child labor. A new Convention on ending child labor was adopted. And then great progress was made in a comparatively short time.

In the late 1990s, the estimated number of children in various forms of child labor was nearly 250 million. Today, that figure has dropped to 152 million. The decline has particularly benefitted girls; total child labor among girls has fallen by 40 percent since 2000. To be sure, we still have a very long way to go in ending child labor. But there has been momentum and remarkable progress over the past twenty years, and every reason to think the gains can continue.

Can we learn from this success and end workplace violence? In the early 2000s, nearly twenty years ago, I made a bold pitch for action to address this widespread problem. My organization, the International Labor Rights Forum, had done seminal work documenting the extent of gender-based violence faced by women on farms and in factories in developing countries. To cite just a few of our findings: in Kenya, we found that fully ninety percent of women workers in Kenya’s export industries were harassed by their supervisors as a condition of keeping their jobs. Women workers were forced to submit to the sexual assaults of their supervisors merely to obtain their paychecks each pay period. Equally troubling, as many as seventy percent of the men interviewed viewed the abuse suffered by women workers as “normal” or “natural” behaviour. In the Dominican Republic, 49 percent of the women in the apparel sector admitted that they had been victims of sexual harassment. Women who did not submit to the wishes of the sexual aggressors were fired, threatened with dismissal, demoted or had their pay arbitrarily reduced. And they were stigmatized for admitting they had been victimized, so virtually no one reported such abuse.

We launched a ‘Rights for Working Women’ initiative and made a plea for a new standard at the ILO. But the movement was not in place. The critics said the issue was ‘cultural,’ that we couldn’t define what constituted acceptable gender relations in workplaces worldwide, that harassment particularly of women was just a price to pay as they entered the formal workforce in greater numbers.

But just a few months ago, and as part of the momentum represented by #MeToo, a group of activists worldwide — a global movement- converged on the ILO and, on the eve of that body’s 100 year anniversary, it finally put in place a new Convention to address Violence at Work.

Now it’s time to get serious and learn from our allies in the child labor movement so we can replicate their successes. First, let’s set ambitious targets. Fully 50 percent of us are harassed at some point in our working lives. Let’s look at the coming decade and what we need to do to cut that number in half.

The single biggest lesson learned from the fight to end child labor is that quite incredible things are possible when you have all the major stakeholders pulling in the same direction. Here is some of what needed to happen:

- Bilateral donors worked together. In particular, the US government played a critical role in promoting the child labor Convention, AND dedicating resources to assist governments worldwide to tackle the problem. The ILO was able to mobilize support from numerous other bilateral donor governments, particularly after the adoption of the Millenium Development Goals. The entire global development community was mobilized around a common goal of keeping more girls in school, which went a long way toward addressing root causes of the child labor problem in many countries.

- Civil society groups kept up momentum through social mobilization and campaigns, and direct services to children. My own organization ran campaigns highlighting the exploitation of children in the global soccer ball, cotton, cocoa, sugar and rubber industries. A number of charitable organizations took up programs to assist former child workers and give them the opportunity for a brighter future. Consumer awareness of the issue kept growing, and kept the pressure on governments, companies and other actors to keep making progress.

- Businesses became an ally in the movement for change. Numerous global corporations began to assess human rights risks in their supply chains, and to adopt tools and processes to reduce the likelihood that they were using child labor. A number of multi-stakeholder initiatives were launched in the wake of the early child labor campaigns, dedicated to monitoring and verifying labor conditions in global supply chains. Some existing certification systems, such as Fairtrade, realized the need to expand their methodology to cover child labor. In other industries, new systems such as Goodweave were launched specifically to address the problem.

Can we replicate this ‘all together now’ approach to end workplace gender-based violence? Clearly the issue is different in many ways from child labor. But importantly, when governments, labor and civil society, and business groups all started pulling in the direction we achieved normative change. Child labor just became unacceptable. Somewhere along the way, I stopped having to debate economists. People stopped telling me that it was ‘natural’ to put children to work in brick kilns. Governments that had previously been unapologetic started passing laws to criminalize child labor. And this is why I am hopeful that there will be continued long term progress. Because after 20 years, it’s no longer just what ‘developed’ world consumers, businesses or governments are doing. In many developing countries, there are champions in local governments, businesses and civil society. We no longer have to make a case for why we should address child labor. They have to make a case for why we wouldn’t.

So, now we have a new ILO Convention on Violence at Work. What next? To start, we need three important sets of champions pulling in the same direction, and we need to articulate an ambitious vision for change.

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. It’s a great time to be ambitious, and push governments around the world to step up and champion progress for the world’s women. We can use this momentum to recognize and set up a group of friendly governments to lead the way in ratifying the Violence at Work Convention. Then we need to build an even greater and more cohesive social movement for gender justice and worker rights.

To be clear, this time we can’t expect the US to lead the way. We are apparently one of the 10 most dangerous countries for women. And it’s no wonder- the rate of femicide in the US, and related astronomical gun violence problem, is really only paralleled in war zones. But the rise in progressive female leadership in places like New Zealand, Germany and Iceland along with progressive male leadership in Canada, Ireland and other countries suggests a clear starting point.

Businesses should already be at the table and through collective fora, such as the Women’s Empowerment Principles, they should find a collective voice to push governments for additional resources and investments. But they also have to get serious about due diligence in their own operations. Over 20,000 people joined a global walkout at Google last year due to pervasive sexual harassment. And although the company’s immediate reaction was to insist it would have ‘zero tolerance’ for misconduct, in reality the organizers were targeted for retaliation. This won’t do. Many victims of GBV fail to report because all too often it’s the abused, and not the abusers, that are most at risk of retaliation. It’s time for companies to put serious accountability mechanisms in place and punish the offenders. It’s also past time to realize that without genuine workplace representation and a voice for workers, accountability systems will never work.

And civil society groups need to keep campaigning, advocating and raising awareness, and especially noting the challenges for low-wage, vulnerable women. Power concedes nothing without a struggle. The Times Up initiative has done a great job of uniting champions across all sectors and using high profile celebrities to speak out in solidarity with low wage and precarious workers. They need to go even bigger, and get even more ambitious. If we want to cut the rate of workplace violence, the place to start is in the occupations where women are most at risk. But we can’t go sector by sector. The movement needs to unite gender and worker justice champions across sectors, and push on all fronts.

Let’s set ambitious goals for the next decade. Let the next generation take it for granted that every workplace is a safe workplace.

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Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.

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Bama Athreya

Expert on labor, gender equity and workplace social inclusion, labor migration and trafficking. Interested in the intersection of tech and social movements.