Codifying #MeToo Into International Law
This post is co-authored with Rebecca Hughes, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program at the Council on Foreign Relations. This article was originally published on the Hill.
The global #MeToo movement is now over a year old. Over the past 15 months, millions of women from Hollywood, Silicon Valley, farm fields and restaurant kitchens have taken to social media to share their stories and to demand change — both individual accountability for perpetrators of violence and harassment and institutional change.
These women, and many men, have called for the laws and policies that govern workplace behavior to be restructured to prevent the violence in the first place. They seek to hold the supervisors, executives and boards who condone perpetrators’ behavior accountable for that sexual misconduct.
They also aim to create wholesale culture change in the workplace and beyond, to foster an environment that rejects patriarchy and sexual violence and embraces gender equality (and that sees these goals as fundamentally interconnected).
While #MeToo has developed “household name” familiarity worldwide, far less well known is an effort by the International Labor Organization (ILO) to create the first legally binding international treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work.
If adopted and ratified, this treaty would, at least on paper, provide protection to all workers and codify some of the demands of #MeToo into international law.
A legally binding international convention
This summer, the ILO will vote on whether to adopt the proposed Convention and Recommendations Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, which has received support from ILO member governments, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and employers. The convention would strengthen and advance the #MeToo movement in three important ways.
First, the ILO’s proposed convention would address a critical normative gap. The #MeToo movement has highlighted both the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault and the gaps in law and policy that allow these violations to flourish.
The World Bank’s "Women, Business and the Law 2018" report found that 59 out of 189 countries studied had no specific legal provisions covering sexual harassment in employment. The ILO’s proposed convention would help to fill this gap.
It would build international consensus that humans have the “right to a world of work free from violence and harassment.”
In addition, countries that ratify the treaty would be required to adopt legislation and policies that prevent and address these behaviors, establish and strengthen enforcement mechanisms and ensure access to remedies and support for victims.
Second, the convention is a powerful opportunity to ensure that the benefits of #MeToo accrue to all women. Many have wondered whether a movement kick-started by Hollywood can uplift average-wage and low-wage workers.
In the past, feminist movements have achieved extraordinary accomplishments, but they have also been rightly criticized for failing to address the needs of marginalized women.
In order for #MeToo to succeed, feminists must reckon with racism and classism and build a diverse coalition that places the proverbial “last girl” at the center rather than the margins.
The proposed ILO convention is an important step in an “intersectional” direction. Through its broad definitions of “worker” and “world of work,” the ILO convention would extend protections to privileged and marginalized workers alike.
For instance, the standard covers workers in every sector in both the formal and informal economy. It encompasses employees, persons in training, laid-off and suspended workers, volunteers and job applicants.
The convention also addresses violence and harassment that occur across a range of work-related spaces, including incidents that take place on messaging platforms, in homes and during commutes.
Not only does this extend protections to workers who are employed in nontraditional settings, but it also recognizes that businesses’ responsibilities to their employees extend beyond the four corners of the workplace.
In covering all workers everywhere, the convention would help advance not only gender equality but also equality among women of different incomes and classes.
Third, the proposed ILO convention, like the #MeToo movement, acknowledges the economic costs of violence and harassment in the world of work. Eighty percent of women who are harassed at work leave their jobs within two years, and many leave for jobs in less lucrative fields where they believe sex discrimination will be less likely to occur.
When talent leaves, businesses pay the price. One study found that sexual harassment costs the typical Fortune 500 Company $6.7 million a year in absenteeism, low productivity and staff turnover. And the ILO estimates that the costs of stress and violence at work account for 1-3.5 percent of countries’ GDP.
The evidence is clear that everyone, from individuals to nations, benefits from addressing sexual assault and harassment. If adopted and implemented, the convention would enable governments and businesses to tackle these costly behaviors and promote broad and inclusive prosperity.
Gender-based violence and harassment as a human rights violation
While the proposed ILO convention is groundbreaking, it falls short in one key respect. It does not define gender-based violence and harassment as human rights violations. Though it is now largely taken for granted that “women’s rights are human rights,” this was not always the case.
Historically, gender-based violence has been viewed as a private matter to be resolved among individuals. It took decades of struggle by women’s movements to convince the international legal community that gender-based violence is the result of structural and deep-rooted discrimination, and that as such, states and institutions have a legal and moral obligation to prevent and address it.
Only recently have international legal documents begun to reflect this understanding. To ensure that the ILO convention does not rollback hard-won progress, it should be revised to unambiguously frame gender-based violence and harassment as human rights violations.
The proposed convention is a golden opportunity to address key #MeToo demands and hopefully the movement’s momentum can be leveraged to improve and propel it forward. Women, workers, businesses and nations will benefit from an international standard that addresses violence and harassment in the world of work.
As the ILO moves toward adopting the standard, leaders from all sectors should continue to advocate for a robust convention with real accountability levers.