House Dems Seek International Labor Accord on Gender-Based Violence at Work

WASHINGTON—In advance of this month’s International Labour Organization (ILO) Governing Board meeting, leading Democratic lawmakers today asked the Obama Administration to support the ILO’s efforts to combat gender-based violence in the workplace around the world and across industries.

Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), and 34 other Democratic Representatives sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Labor Tom Perez seeking their backing for a proposed ILO Convention on gender- based violence at work and a standard-setting discussion on violence against women and men in the workplace.

“Gender-based violence is among the most rampant human rights violations in the world – and it most acutely affects women. Women are the driving force of many global industries, but the physical and economic violence they experience is also the glue that holds the current system together,” said Rep. Miller, senior Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee. “Worldwide, working women are ruthlessly exploited. They face daily sexual harassment, intimidation, and verbal and physical abuse. This is unacceptable. We must establish international norms that address violence against women at work, and hold companies and industries accountable for protecting the most fundamental labor human rights of their workers, up and down the supply chain. Businesses must better protect their female workers. If they don’t, their labels may as well read: ‘made with violence against women.’”

A recent example of workplace violence against women is the case of the garment industry in Bangladesh. Women make up the vast majority of workers in the factories making garments for major international brands and retailers. Wages are meager and working conditions frequently atrocious. Furthermore, some factory owners game the system by laying off women to avoid paying maternity benefits, forcing women to work unpaid overtime, and far exceeding legally permissible maximum working hours. Women are subjected to harassment on the factory floor. Reports of women being beaten or held captive by their employers are common.

An ILO Convention would help address the injustices for women in the garment and other industries industry and would be an important step to improve women’s working conditions worldwide. Several members of the Governing Body of the ILO– made up of representatives of governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations—have indicated their support for such a Convention.

“One out of three women in the world will be subject to violence in her lifetime. Sexual abuse and gender-based violence happens in her home, workplace and community,” said Rep. Schakowsky. “We must combat this with the International Violence Against Women Act, that I have sponsored. By putting this legislation in place and through trade agreements on diplomacy the US can be a leader in addressing this issue, ensuring that women and girls have the freedom to live in a safer society.”

Miller was the first member of Congress to visit Bangladesh since more than 1,100 workers died and more than 2,500 were injured in the April 24th, 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse that housed five garment factories, making it one of the worst industrial tragedies in world history. He recently met with one of the victims of that disaster to discuss the exploitive social and economic structures in which Bangladeshi garment workers are caught. Miller has also sought greater oversight of the labor and safety conditions in those factories.

For more on violence against women in Bangladesh and Rep. Miller’s work on the issue, click here.

Read text of the letter below:

March 12, 2014

The Honorable Secretary Thomas E. Perez
Secretary of Labor
Frances Perkins Building
200 Constitution Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20210

The Honorable Secretary John F. Kerry
Secretary of State
2201 C Street NW
Washington, DC 20520

Dear Secretary Perez and Secretary Kerry:

In advance of the March 2014 ILO Governing Board Meeting, we write to ask for your support for a proposed International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on gender based violence in the workplace and a standard setting discussion on violence against women and men in the workplace. Gender based violence was described as “the most prevalent human rights violation in the world” in a 2011 ILO working paper, and while the ILO recognized “gender-based violence as a critical and major global challenge to the goal of equality between women and men,” the creation of such an international standard would be an important and appropriate mechanism for combatting the scourge of gender-based violence affecting workers -- especially women workers -- around the world and across industries.

This proposed convention is particularly important in the context of industries, such as the garment industry, where women make up the vast majority of workers.  The garment industry is built on a production model where women workers are routinely denied appropriate compensation or workplace protections, including safety and health protections, and where a culture of verbal and physical abuse and exploitation by owners, managers and supervisors, is far too often the norm. Last year’s collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, which killed 1,133 people of whom 80% were women, is a horrific manifestation of the violence faced by workers, and puts in sharp relief the callous disregard for worker and human rights so endemic in garment factories.

Yet women and male workers daily face sexual harassment, intimidation, and verbal and physical abuse.  According to a 2011 report on the Bangladesh garment industry, 297 women of the 998 women surveyed said that they had been the recipient of unwelcome sexual overtures.  290 reported being touched inappropriately and an additional 328 said that they endured "threats of being forced to undress." Nearly half of the respondents reported being beaten and struck in the face by their supervisors.

Maquiladoras in Mexico have also experienced sexual harassment since maquilas emerged in the 1970s.  Women working in the maquila export industry in Mexico suffer from gender violence and discriminatory treatment, including being forced to take compulsory pregnancy tests and being paid less than the minimum wage. These types of gender based abuse and discrimination should not be tolerated in any context.  It is becoming clear that today’s global garment industry is a system organized around physical and economic violence against women. There has already been a backlash against ‘Blood on your labels,’ and rightly so.  But a closer look reveals we should also be examining this issue through ‘violence against women on your labels.’  As such, the garment industry provides one example of an international production chain with a model of low-cost labor and record of labor violations, which demonstrates a need for this convention.

That is why we must move aggressively to establish international norms to address violence against women at work through the International Labour Organization. This would provide women workers and rights advocates with a standard to hold companies and industries accountable across borders.  Working women have the right to be free from gender based violence in the workplace.

We urge you to put the full weight of the US government behind the proposal for a standard-setting discussion on violence against women and men at the workplace for the 2016 International Labor Conference.

Sincerely,

GEORGE MILLER                                                   JAN SCHAKOWSKY
Member of Congress                                              Member of Congress

 

HENRY A. WAXMAN
Member of Congress

ROSA L. DELAURO
Member of Congress

CHRIS VAN HOLLEN
Member of Congress

ELIOT L. ENGEL
Member of Congress

BETTY MCCOLLUM
Member of Congress

ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON
Member of Congress

MARK POCAN
Member of Congress

JAMES P. MCGOVERN
Member of Congress

KATHERINE M. CLARK
Member of Congress  

RAÚL M. GRIJALVA
Member of Congress

ERIC SWALWELL
Member of Congress

GWEN MOORE
Member of Congress

JERRY MCNERNEY
Member of Congress

CORRINE BROWN 
Member of Congress

JAMES P. MORAN
Member of Congress

DINA TITUS
Member of Congress

ANN MCLANE KUSTER
Member of Congress
                       
SHEILA JACKSON LEE
Member of Congress

JOHN LEWIS
Member of Congress

CHARLES B. RANGEL
Member of Congress

FREDERICA S. WILSON
Member of Congress

WILLIAM R. KEATING
Member of Congress

GENE GREEN
Member of Congress                  

JOSÉ E. SERRANO
Member of Congress

BARBARA LEE
Member of Congress  

CAROLYN B. MALONEY
Member of Congress

MICHELLE LUJAN GRISHAM
Member of Congress

ROBIN L. KELLY
Member of Congress

LOIS FRANKEL
Member of Congress  

DONALD M. PAYNE JR.
Member of Congress

MICHAEL M. HONDA
Member of Congress

JOHN K. DELANEY
Member of Congress

EARL BLUMENAUER
Member of Congress  

DAVID N. CICILLINE
Member of Congress