ILO Convention C190 is the world's first international binding labor standard stating requirements for governments, employers and unions to prevent gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Cambodia has yet to officially ratify this important convention.
Feelings of comfort and safety in the workplace are influential to one’s mental health and job performance and a healthy workplace environment with positive interpersonal relationships can improve employee engagement and productivity
However, for many workers, the world of work is not a safe place due to behaviors and practices that have negative impacts resulting in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm. These are human rights violations that require global attention.
Workers everywhere endure various forms of inappropriate and unprofessional behavior from their superiors, colleagues, customers and clients ranging from insults, inappropriate language, and sexual jokes to stalking, touching and physical or sexual assault. These issues are now being addressed by the international community, seeking a secure and safe world of work for all.
In the international non-governmental organisation CARE’s 2017 report, sexual harassment is referred to not only as a human rights abuse but an economic issue. With their study on sexual harassment in the garment sector in Cambodia, the cost of sexual harassment on workplace productivity is estimated at USD 89 million per annum. However, in Cambodia, workplace harassment isn’t restricted to garment factories or the private sector. Workers everywhere, especially women, are faced with unfair treatment, harassment and other forms of abuse of power.
Back in March of 2021, the month of International Women’s Day, there was social media outcry following a public apology from police officer Sithong Sokha, who at the time, posted a picture of herself breastfeeding her child during working hours on her personal facebook account. Her superiors demanded her to issue a public apology letter because her breastfeeding in public “affected her institution and Khmer female’s dignity.” The order led to backlash towards her superiors as the public saw the employer’s demands as overreaching and harassing a working mother for simply doing the necessary task of caring for her child.
Within a few days of the backlash, 39 civil society organizations in Cambodia released a joint statement expressing their disappointment and concerns for the government’s lack of effort to protect women’s rights in its workplaces. Highlighting the pervasive nature of workplace discrimination and harassment, the statement challenged the current state of women’s rights in the country.
Discriminatory attitudes and actions, as described in this case, are often linked to deeply rooted ideals of gender norms, stereotypes and power hierarchies which condone and reinforce the unequal status of women relative to men. These individual and societal attitudes and actions are concerning because they can lead to more serious gender-based harassment and violence.
However, there is currently limited legal recourse available to workers in Cambodia who experience work-related discrimination, violence and harassment, and furthermore, the Cambodian Labor Law does not apply to all workers, such as in this case, where police personnel, civil servants or military forces are governed by separate frameworks.
What is Violence and Harassment in the World of Work?
Convention 190 [C190] and Recommendation 206 by the International Labor Organization, the world’s very first International Convention on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work including gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), was adopted in June 2019 and came into force two years later on 25 June 2021. As of today, ILO C190 has been ratified by 9 countries worldwide with Italy the latest to ratify, and is ready to be put into force locally.
According to C190, Violence and Harassment in the World of Work is defined as “a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices or threats thereof whether a single occurrence or repeated that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm including gender-based violence and harassment.”
Regardless of the work-related setting where they take place, frequent physical harassment or non-physical abuse such as bullying, stalking or insults that cause a person to feel degraded, shameful or insecure in the world of work are all considered harassment and fall under the scope of violence and harassment.
C190 defines GBVH as “violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately and includes sexual harassment.”
Under article 2 of the convention, C190 also expands these protections to “workers and other persons” in the world of work. This refers to anyone who is engaged in work, irrespective of their contractual status; including employees, interns, informal workers, apprentices, volunteers, job applicants, and individuals exercising authority at work, and employers.
Meanwhile “the world of work”, listed in Article 3, is used to fill the gap of the term “workplace” by including “in the course of or linked with or arising out of work, counted from job application, commuting to and from work or all kinds of conversation between, either by physical or digital means that are related to work”.
In more simple terms, the world of work includes public and private spaces where work takes place such as company’s canteens, admin offices, elevators, restrooms or parking areas. Some other places that link to work also included such as training, field missions, dinner with clients, after work parties, and traveling to and from work. Social media, phone calls, messaging and other communication tools are also under this scope. An employee receiving an inappropriate sexual message from her superior, or a colleague insulting their body during lunch break are both examples of harassment occurring in the scope of the world of work.
Why does C190 need to be ratified by its signatories?
ILO Convention C190 is an important tool for specifying what governments, employers and unions need to do to prevent gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. However, this framework specifically states that it cannot be effectively used unless governments ratify the law, stating their official recognition and consent to be bound by the convention and to adopt it as a legally binding principle nationally.
In Cambodia, the existing labor law prohibits sexual harassment at work, however, the law fails to effectively define these terms, meaning that the implementation of the law is still inadequate and rarely enforced. The scope of the current criminal code is also quite limited, defining sexual harassment as the repeated abuse of power by a person in authority. In this sense the law fails to cover single instances of abuse or abuse occurring between peers.
The law prohibits “all form of sexual harassment”, which overlooks other forms of harassment. In Cambodia, under the limited scope of the law, gender based violence in the world of work isn’t covered because the law doesn’t define the important missing pieces such as abuse made by colleagues and peers, violence and harassment that occurs outside the workplace, or insults in the workplace as “sexual harassment”. Furthermore the law doesn’t specify the scope of “the world of work”. This means any form of violence and harassment related to work that happens outside of a company or institution or the traditional workplace will likely fail to be seen, thus violence and harassment in the world of work could occur without being noticed and people will continue to ignore its harm .
With the limitations of Cambodian law and a lack of enforcement, gender based violence and harassment can occur in workplaces everywhere, but many studies have focused on the garment sector where there are high numbers of women workers.
“In our own words: Women workers address gender-based violence in garment factories in Cambodia”, a 2019 report published by civil society organizations including factory worker unions in Cambodia, revealed that women in the garment sector suffer the most from workplace harassment. A survey from the report showed that up to 87% of women were subjected to verbal harassment or unwanted touching at work with 35% of this harassment coming from managers holding greater status and power.
The insufficient enforcement means harassment cases remain a major problem and without proper information given to employees and no legal implementation, victims often don’t know their cases are harassment or understand their right to address the issue.
The adoption of C190 into Cambodian policy would mark a significant step forward for protecting the rights of all workers and ensuring safe working environments in the country. And while Cambodia is one of the convention signatories voting in favor of adopting, the Kingdom has yet to ratify the convention.
C190 in the context of Covid-19
To celebrate two years since the adoption of C190 by the ILO, in July, 41 civil society organizations and an expert on social issues and gender in Cambodia released a joint statement, calling on the government to ratify this important legal framework by 2021. The joint statement ended by collectively urging the government to ratify ILO C190 and stressed the impact of Covid-19: “Ratification of ILO C190 by the government is more important and urgent than ever…COVID-19 has worsened the working conditions of all workers including through greater degrees of financial insecurity, unemployment, stress, the burden of unpaid care work for women workers, and risks of domestic violence that impacts work.”
In this context, demanding labor rights becomes even more difficult. Due to the economic impacts of the pandemic many firms and factories face a financial crisis, reducing job security. At the same time job seeking has become more challenging as many institutions, both in the private and public sectors, postponed their recruitment.
The situation has also aggravated existing conditions of harassment. Many people become anxious with such an unstable situation but they have no choice but to continue working under unwanted conditions, harassment, or being used for unfair advantages since pursuing other employment has become even more challenging during the pandemic.
But these issues are not limited to one country or a single industry. Just as the Covid-19 virus has spread around the world and permeated every aspect of daily life, workplace and gender based harassment affect people globally in nearly every profession. And the world’s most prestigious athletic competition is no exception.
Recently, in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, a group of female German gymnasts drew attention from the international community and media when the team changed their uniforms from the traditional unitard that normally exposes the lower body, to a full body, sparkling uniform covering them from forearm to heel.
One team member, Sarah Voss, told Reuters that the reason behind the uniform changes came from the desire to encourage female athletes to exercise freedom of choice in clothing so that they feel comfortable and secure during competitions.
Their uniform change was also aimed at countering a “sexualization of the sport.” This powerful collective act of courage sent an influential message, showing constraint against long-standing unfair treatment toward female athletes that the public overlooked. Their demand on dignity, starting from the uniform, built a perfect example of the central role that workers in every sector can play if they could come together to put an end to these degrading conditions. C190 emphasizes the importance of consulting with workers to develop policies that could address problems of GBVH, like the above case for example, so that they could be free from any kind of abuse in the world of work.
Inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment happen to millions of people around the world, in factories and offices regardless of age or status thanks in no small part to insufficient regulations. The C190 initiative can play a primary role in filling the gaps in the national labor laws of its signatories by setting a common framework that entails specific practices and solutions to address, prevent and eliminate Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.
For Voss and her fellow teammate Elisabeth Seitz, their actions speak to the broader issues of female agency and the right to feel safe and comfortable in the world of work, regardless of situation or profession.
“We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable and we show everyone that they can wear whatever they want and look amazing, feel amazing.” Sarah Voss said.
This post is also available in: KH