Sexual Abuse: Violation of a Safe and Healthy Workplace?

Convention C190 on Violence and Harassment as part of OSH

Last week, International Women’s Day was celebrated all around the world. On that day, amongst other things, women’s right to work and professional achievements working towards equality between men and women are celebrated. However, there is still a long way to go. Three weeks ago, the BBC revealed shocking stories of sexual abuse of women on Kenyan tea farms. The harassment took place for years on plantations owned by Unilever and James Finlay & Co. After the allegations were made public, Lipton Teas and Infusions, who recently bought Unilever’s plantations, has reportedly taken action immediately. Even though Unilever launched a “zero tolerance” approach to sexual harassment including a reporting system 10 years ago, many women were sexually abused by their bosses, and when they reported it to their supervisors, no action was taken. Jobs are very scarce in Kenya, so women hardly have a choice to quit since they have families to feed.

We have already discussed Occupational Health and Safety (hereinafter: OSH) in multiple blogs, since it is one of the five fundamental principles and rights at work. In those blogs, we referred to constructional safety, fire safety and the Rana Plaza Collapse as obvious examples of OSH, but we did not address sexual harassment yet. The ILO states that violence and harassment form an obvious risk of OSH, even though they are not specifically mentioned in the OSH conventions (C155 & C187). The Violence and Harassment Convention (C190) was adopted by the ILO in 2019 to decrease this risk. The convention also specifically refers to sexual harassment being “gender-based violence and harassment”. According to the ILO, the provisions of the Violence and Harassment Convention must be taken into account by ILO Members in order to meet the requirements of OSH. Given that OSH is one of the five core labour standards, even if not ratified, Member States must comply with it.

In the meantime, the ILO started a global campaign to build support for the Violence and Harassment Convention. It also proposed a project to guide policy-makers on how to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work by providing an overview of existing OSH legal and policy frameworks. Furthermore, the ILO launched a report “Safe and healthy working environments free from violence and harassment” which examines prevention through OSH frameworks.

Due to the global scale of supply chains, companies are often not aware of violations of fundamental labour rights occuring in their supply chains. In the case reported by the BBC, James Finlay & Co supplied Kenyan tea to Tesco supermarkets, Sainsbury’s supermarkets and also Starbucks. These companies were deeply concerned about the sexual harassment of women happening in their supply chains, and decided to take immediate action. Aside from prevention through Member States’ policies and legal frameworks, large companies can also have an influence by performing human rights due diligence. When this process becomes mandatory (as proposed by the European Commission), it may enable companies to capture violence and harassment in their supply chains at an earlier stage.


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