On International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, over 50 female union leaders urge stronger action by the incoming European Commission.
Violence against women must stop, full stop. Yet as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women comes around again today, the attacks on women—both physical and virtual, via ‘social media’—continue.
In the workplace, many women suffer abuse on a daily basis, and are often too afraid to come forward to denounce it. Now trade unions have had enough. In an open letter signed by more than 50 female union leaders across the European Union, they urge the incoming European Commission to take stronger action.
In particular, the EU must take the lead in persuading member states to ratify the June 2019 International Labour Organization Convention 190 on violence and harassment at work. The convention recognises ‘that violence and harassment in the world of work can constitute a human rights violation or abuse, and that violence and harassment is a threat to equal opportunities, is unacceptable and incompatible with decent work’. It defines violence and harassment as behaviour, practices or threats ‘that aim at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm’. And it reminds member states that they have a responsibility to promote a ‘general environment of zero tolerance’.
Ratification would significantly boost the efforts of unions, employers and other organisations to tackle violence against women, and would support stronger implementation of the European social-partner Framework Agreement on Harassment and Violence at Work.
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Our letter is a demonstration of solidarity—a recognition that gender-based violence affects all women and that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, we will not accept our daughters continuing to live under the threat of male aggression. It also demonstrates our commitment to ensuring the EU ratifies and fully implements the Council of Europe Istanbul convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
Physical and psychological violence against women takes place both at home and at work, irrespective of sector, profession or educational level—although nurses, teachers, carers, cleaners and transport, retail, domestic and hospitality workers are particularly at risk. For example:
- 63 per cent of women workers in transport across Europe have experienced at least one recent act of violence;
- one in every four female workers in the Netherlands has been exposed to violence from clients, customers, students or passengers;
- 50 per cent of health workers in Bulgaria have experienced violence at work;
- 50 per cent of women in the hospitality sectors in Denmark and Finland have experienced sexual harassment at least once, the incidence highest among young female restaurant staff with precarious job contracts;
- in any one year in the UK, more than 20 per cent of employed women take time off work because of domestic abuse and 2 per cent lose their jobs as a direct result.
Trade unions and employers have an important role to play in stopping abuse: setting up procedures for reporting and recording incidents, supporting the victims and dealing with the perpetrators. Already, the ETUC has gathered information on 80 collective agreements around Europe which address violence and harassment in the workplace. At industry level, the European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism trade unions (EFFAT) has launched recommendations to protect workers from sexual harassment and violence, while in Ireland the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has launched research to discover the extent of abuse.
So our members fully support the pledge by the new commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, to step up the fight against gender-based violence. We are in this battle together and we have to win.
The last few years have shown that equal rights for women, LGBTI people and refugees have become a battleground for right-wing populists. All over Europe the populist agenda brings a backlash against established women’s rights and measures to address gender-based crimes. Seven EU member states—Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and the UK—continue to block the ratification of the Istanbul convention both at member-state and EU level, while the refusal to legislate against gender-based violence against women is symptomatic of a wider reaction against women’s rights in Europe.
We back the incoming commission’s call for full ratification of the Istanbul convention; for stronger support, protection and rights for female victims if the convention remains blocked in the European Council; and for violence against women to be added to the list of EU crimes defined in the treaty, strengthening prevention, protection and redress and allowing cross-border European arrest warrants to be issued for crimes of violence against women.
Violence against women is one of the worst and most destructive forms of discrimination, yet it still reaches alarming levels across Europe, facilitated by inadequate legislation and impunity for perpetrators. Trade unions have asked to meet von der Leyen and the equality commissioner-designate, Helena Dalli, to discuss further measures to tackle a crime that should have no place in the EU.
Esther Lynch was elected general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation in December 2022. She has extensive trade union experience at Irish, European and international levels, starting with her election as a shop steward in the 1980s.
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