Banning violence and harassment in workplace: Agreement at ILO Centenary Conference


A major international agreement banning violence and harassment in the workplace has been adopted by the International Labour Organization’s Centenary Conference in Geneva. This has been hailed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his address at the Conference. Guterres congratulated Member States on  “building upon a legacy of achievement, guided by that age-old vision of social justice through social dialogue and international cooperation” (UN News 2019).

The Convention passed this after a voting involving representatives of governments, employers and workers, in line with ILO’s tripartite structure. It became first new Convention – a legally binding international instrument – entered into by the International Labour Conference since 2011, when the Domestic Workers Convention, was adopted. As per the new labour standard, violence and harassment at work “constitute a human rights violation or abuse.” Considered as behaviour that is likely to lead to “physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm,” violence and harassment are also regarded as “a threat to equal opportunities” which are “unacceptable and incompatible with decent work.” In signing the Convention, Member States have a responsibility to promote a “general environment of zero tolerance,” while also protecting trainees, interns, volunteers, jobseekers and employees “irrespective of their contractual status” (Ibid). This is expected to have positive implications for some 2.5 billion people in the informal work sector, whose collective bargaining power should be utilized to promote workers’ rights, as per the decision. As for the world body, the Convention would reflect its belief that “labour is not a commodity and that people’s wellbeing – and peace – depends on respect.”

The Centenary conference  of  ILO ended with the adoption of an unprecedented Convention and accompanying Recommendation  to combat violence and harassment in the world of work, as well as a Declaration  charting the way towards a human-centred future of work.
The ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, 2019 , is a reaffirmation of the relevance and importance of the ILO’s mandate in the changing world of work, a strong statement of intent, a mobilizing call, and a road map for action by the ILO itself.  “What we have adopted today is a roadmap, a compass to take us forward in the future of this organization, because the future of work is the future of our Organization,” said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder.
The Declaration looks to the future of work with a human-centred lens. It has a strong focus on enabling people to benefit from changes in the world of work, by strengthening the institutions of work to ensure adequate protection of all workers, and by promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable growth and full and productive employment.

Specific areas for action identified include the effective realization of gender equality in opportunities and treatment, effective lifelong learning and quality education for all, universal access to comprehensive and sustainable social protection, respect for workers’ fundamental rights, an adequate minimum wage, maximum limits on working time, safety and health at work, policies that promote decent work, and enhance productivity, and policies and measures that ensure appropriate privacy and personal data protection, and respond to challenges and opportunities in the world of work relating to the digital transformation of work, including platform work (ILO 2019).

UN Secretary-General António Guterres delivered strong messages of support for the ILO and its social justice mandate.  He said: “You are carrying forward the torch that was lit one hundred years ago to help build a new world – a world based on social justice, founded on a model of inclusion – with governments, workers and employers at the decision-making table together.”
The Convention recognized that violence and harassment in the world of work “can constitute a human rights violation or abuse…is a threat to equal opportunities, is unacceptable and incompatible with decent work.” It defines “violence and harassment” as behaviours, practices or threats “that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm.” It reminds member States that they have a responsibility to promote a “general environment of zero tolerance.”

The new international labour standard aims to protect workers and employees, irrespective of their contractual status, and includes persons in training, interns and apprentices, workers whose employment has been terminated, volunteers, jobseekers and job applicants. It recognizes that “individuals exercising the authority, duties or responsibilities of an employer” can also be subjected to violence and harassment.

Conventions are legally binding international treaties that may be ratified by member States, while Recommendations serve as non-binding guidelines. Declarations are resolutions of the ILO’s member States used to make a formal and authoritative statement.

The two-week ILC was attended by about 6,300 delegates, representing Governments, workers and employers from 178 of the ILO’s member States, as well as observer national and international non-governmental organizations. A number of thematic forums on future of work issues  took place during the Conference, featuring heads of United Nations and multilateral agencies and high-level government, workers’ and employers’ representatives.

However, even as such resolutions and declarations are passed, the rights of workers are routinely violated across the world. According to Macnaughton and Frey (2018), “work rights are not widely respected around the world, and work can be low paying, demeaning, dangerous, and tedious, leaving workers and their families in multi-dimensional poverty.” They noted that “the dominance of neoliberal ideology and policymaking suggests that substantial change is not on the horizon.”  The ILO itself estimated that as many as 190 million people were unemployed (ILO 2018).  This number was expected to mount over 2019  by 1.3 million as more people seek to enter the work force.  Further, the ILO estimated that 1.4 billion workers were in vulnerable forms of employment. This number was also expected to rise by 17 million in 2018 and again in 2019. In the Global South countries, 300 million workers live in extreme poverty on less than US$1.90 (PPP) per day (Ibid). The ILO-compliant states themselves are responsible for undermining the rights of workers, on the one hand and the opportunities for new avenues of employment are foreclosed forever, on the other. It shows that the task of addressing issues of labour is not solely with the institutions of global governance, but with the governments of particular countries who should come out of the neoliberal mooring.


International Labour Organization (ILO)(2918): World employment outlook: Trends 2018 , Geneva: ILO Office.

International Labour Organization (ILO) (2019): 108th International Labour Conference, key Convention and Declaration,–en/index.htm

Macnaughton, Gillian and Diane Frey (2018): Challenging Neoliberalism: ILO, Human Rights, and Public Health Frameworks on Decent Work,” Health and Human Rights Journal, 20/2

UN News (2019):  “Guterres hails historic Convention banning violence and harassment at work,”


This write up has also appeared in the Global South Colloquy.  The author is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. He can be reached at [email protected]

Global South Colloquy (


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