In June, labor advocates from across the world celebrated the passage of a landmark global treaty that builds on the unprecedented gains made in the era of #MeToo. By recognizing that sexual harassment and other forms of violence and harassment have no place at work in any part of the world, the treaty made history — and revealed the important role that African countries can continue to play in the global fight for dignity at work.
The International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 190 marks the first international ILO standard addressing the responsibility of governments and employers to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the world of work. The hard-fought victory has significant implications for the global workforce, especially women. During the negotiations for the treaty, the worker representative, Marie Clarke-Walker, repeatedly narrated stories of scores of women from different sectors, including the informal economy, enduring violence and harassment at work.
The treaty’s passage was due in large part to the support of numerous governments, including those of African governments, who supported it in a bloc. The treaty will come into force when at least two countries ratify it. If African nations take the logical and important next step of ratification, it could help usher in a bold new era for human rights and women’s equality on the continent.
Understandably, many are unaware of the treaty’s passage, considering the excitement around the FIFA Women’s World Cup at that time. But to be clear, this advance for workers—and women’s equality—is no less monumental or dramatic than those terrific matches.
The finale of the two-year-long negotiations between representatives of governments, worker unions, and employers that make up the ILO unfolded over 11 long days in a windowless room in the UN building in Geneva. All African governments that voted, out of the 439 governments, workers and employers, supported adoption of the treaty.
Uganda and Namibia led the voting bloc of African countries — 54 altogether — and played a crucial role in shaping worker protections. They battled strongly to reaffirm the right to work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based abuses. When numerous other countries opposed the inclusion of rights-based language in the treaty, African nations joined the European Union, several Latin American countries, and the Philippines in developing an ILO standard grounded in rights.
The treaty ensures protections for a range of people impacted by violence and harassment at work, including informal economy workers, job seekers, job applicants, and interns. Speaking for the Africa regional group during negotiations, Uganda and Namibia championed protections for workers who experience violence and harassment at the hands of third parties. They cited, for example, the needs of health workers to be protected from violence and harassment by patients and their relatives.
Many, including Uganda and Namibia on behalf of the African group, pushed back against employer efforts to limit protections to violations that occur within a physical workplace. As a result, a variety of situations outside the four walls of any given workplace are covered. Protections apply to worker hostels, resting areas, and sanitation facilities, for example. African countries also joined forces with the workers to fight for strong protections against violence and harassment when commuting to and from work.
Finally, Uganda, speaking for the African voting bloc, thwarted employer efforts to whittle down important parts of the treaty through repeated caveats like “as appropriate” or “in accordance with national law and practice,” which weaken the strength of the standards.
New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Belgium, and France have already signaled their commitment to ratify the treaty. The leading governments from Africa — including Uganda and Namibia, who helped negotiate a strong treaty — should join this group. Ratifying it will show the world, and their own citizens, that they are committed to walking the walk.
Many African countries are well positioned to begin ratifying soon. A 2018 World Bank report found that, of the countries surveyed, over 30 in Africa already have laws governing sexual harassment at work. These include Algeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cape Verde, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Côte d'Ivoire, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Morocco, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, and Zambia.
The ILO convention comes at an opportune time in Africa, as it pursues its 10-year plan to achieve the African Union’s Agenda 2063. Among other things, this agenda aims to generate employment for one in every four people and lift Africans out of poverty by the year 2063. Ensuring that jobs come with dignity and are free of violence and harassment is central to this vision. Ratification of the treaty would enable the creation of legal systems that protect workers in all African countries— and would mark critical progress toward realizing Agenda 2063.
Since at least half of all African countries already have some law governing sexual harassment at work, they are well positioned to combine the twin goals of achieving prosperity and protecting workers from violence and harassment. Ratifying the ILO treaty would help ensure that as the region’s economy expands, no worker in Africa gets left behind.
Aruna Kashyap is senior counsel for the women’s rights division of Human Rights Watch.