Are countries keeping the promise of the Violence and Harassment Convention?


On this day of 2019, labor, feminist and human rights allies celebrated the adoption by the International Labor Organization (ILO) of the Violence and Harassment Convention (N ° 190). This historic international standard called on member states to adopt measures to prevent and eliminate violence and harassment at work, in particular gender-based violence and harassment at work (GBVH). As this legal standard was being negotiated, women around the world spoke out against sexual violence and harassment in the workplace in unprecedented numbers, linking their individual victimization to the collective experience of persistent gender-based violence in their place. work and in society simultaneously highlighted by the #MeToo movement.

Zhou Xiaoxuan (or Xianzi) is one of the millions who have spoken. In 2014, Xianzi was sexually harassed by a famous TV host during a college internship at China Central Television. When she reported the incident to the police, they persuaded her not to pursue the complaint, suggesting that it would damage both her parents’ career and Xianzi’s reputation. Four years later, inspired by other women sharing their stories, Xianzi posted her account of the incident online.

Instead of receiving an apology, Xianzi was sued in 2018 for defamation. When she filed a retaliation for sexual harassment, the court dismissed her claim. Further hearings were scheduled for May, but were abruptly adjourned without explanation. The high-profile legal battle has generated considerable public interest, especially from a growing feminist movement and young Chinese women – some of whom protested outside the courthouse on the day of the Xianzi court hearing. Experts believe that this public attention has made the Chinese government very cautious in handling the case, explaining the long delays.

Two years after the adoption of Convention 190, what progress have member states made in fulfilling its mandates? Six countries, including Namibia, Argentina and Somalia, have ratified the convention and given it legal effect in their national systems. Strong ratification campaigns are underway in places like South Africa and Zambia, supported by various groups like the International Trade Union Confederation and International Federation of Domestic Workers, and more than ten countries have have signaled their intention to ratify. In other countries, Convention 190 has inspired national conversations about gaps in existing laws and power-based barriers to access to justice. In addition, thanks to powerful campaigns like the Global fight for the 15 at McDonalds, IUF Global Campaign against sexual harassment at Marriott, and Justice for Jeyasre, women workers and their unions do not wait for ratification, but engage directly with brands and employers to eliminate GBV from their workplaces.

The fight to end GBVH at work in China

A new report through Global Labor JusticeInternational labor rights forum (GLJ-ILRF) and NYU Asian-American Law Institute examines the case of China, assessing how its domestic laws and practices compare to international standards. On the one hand, during the negotiations, China endorsed the adoption of a binding legal instrument (rather than a non-binding resolution) and the convention’s mission to promote a “zero tolerance” environment towards GBV. . Although it has not yet ratified the convention, China has introduced a new legal provision in 2020, which explicitly created the accountability of perpetrators of sexual harassment and required employers to adopt measures to investigate, prevent and end sexual harassment in the workplace.

But as Xianzi’s case shows, sexual harassment persists in Chinese workplaces and victims face real challenges in asserting their rights. Chinese media coverage of sexual harassment complaints remains limited and government authorities tightened further on these reports after the #MeToo movement started to gain traction.

In order to better understand the types of GBV occurring in the Chinese workplace and how these incidents are handled, the report reviews more than 100 civil case judgments from a database Chinese court decisions. The cases revealed a wide range of GBV in the Chinese workplace, including obscene comments and jokes, harassing messages, unwelcome touching, invitations to subordinates to have sex, and forced viewing of pornography.

However, very few victims of GBV have sought redress from Chinese courts. Most of the cases involved alleged harassers suing their employer to contest their dismissal – a positive indication that some employers are taking GBVH complaints seriously. The few victims who did sue rarely won due to the heavy burden of proof on complainants and the requirement that the victim’s oral testimony be corroborated by physical evidence. Even those who “won” received no compensation or only a pittance. Instead, victims who complained have often faced reprisals from the employer or, like Xianzi, a defamation lawsuit by the harasser.

Recognizing some of these challenges, China – as Uruguay, Denmark, and others – continues to make progress towards harmonizing its national law and practice with the mandates of Convention 190. Three months ago, the Municipality of Shenzhen issued a detailed guideline which more precisely defines sexual harassment, specifies the policies and procedures that employers must implement, prescribes penalties for harassers and prohibits retaliation.

The report encourages China to continue on this path. Based on the empirical research carried out, the report offers concrete recommendations to the Chinese government, employers, workers’ organizations and global brands for, for example, that the legal definition of prohibited conduct coextensive with Convention 190; establish clear accountability and penalties for employers; strengthen government oversight and enforcement; and prohibit retaliation. Our intention is that this report will serve as a resource for these actors to promote respect for the text and the spirit of Convention 190.


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