16 Days of Activism: Interview with Catelene Passchier on the journey to #RatifyILO190

Catelene Passchier, Chair of the Workers’ group in the ILO, has an extensive background in both law and union experience. With the Global 16 Days of Activism centred around the ratification of the ILO Convention 190 and Recommendation 206 on Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, Passchier is kicking off our first day of the campaign with unique insight on the process of negotiating this Convention from the perspective of workers, and ways that brands and others can help support its ratification.

Convention 190, which was adopted in June, is a historic victory as it establishes a new human right: to be free from violence and harassment at work. However, it is only able to make real change when it is ratified by individual countries and implemented on the ground. Read below to learn more about Passchier’s perspective and the significance of ILO Convention 190.

Catelene Passchier is the Chair of the Workers’ group in the ILO since she was elected in that position in June 2017, and in that capacity also the vice chair of the ILO’s Governing Body. In addition to her ILO responsibilities, she is special adviser to the president of FNV (the Dutch Confederation of Trade Unions), member of the Dutch National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines, and vice chair of the board of Fair Wear Foundation.

Fair Wear: What is special about having your input is that you have really been a part of the process in understanding workers’ demands for this convention.  Can you tell us more about the negotiation process?

Catelene: Passchier: I think it is important for people to understand that the Convention did not come out of the blue. It’s a very long process. To begin with, the issue was put on the agenda already quite some time ago within the unions. In my organisation, FNV, we had the topic of violence and harassment on our agenda since the end of the 1980s and succeeded to make it an issue for national social dialogue and to agree with employer associations in the Netherlands on recommendations to address this topic. So this is not a new issue, and it is also not new in many other countries. But to get it on the agenda of the ILO, you have to convince employers that it is an issue for the agenda of the ILO, and then you have to convince governments that there needs to be a legally binding standard, not just a recommendation or guidelines. For us as unions, it was clear that we needed it to be a convention with binding effects that requires ratification within countries, and that we can monitor it in terms of its implementation. 

To achieve this Convention, we were helped by two things. The first was an ongoing debate within the United Nations with UN women placing the issue of violence and harassment on their agenda, and then there was the debate in the context of #MeToo. Many other developments helped, but the discussion in the public sphere (which is unusual with ILO conventions) was advantageous. What was also helpful over the last two years was the close cooperation between trade union women and NGOs. In this way, we could mobilise a lot of support outside of the trade union movement to increase awareness of the issue, especially with the encouragement of newspaper articles and media attention. All of this was very important in creating an atmosphere in which it was very difficult for governments and employers to say no to it. There was a growing general understanding that this is an issue in many workplaces and for many workers around the globe, and that it must be addressed.

Celebrating the adoption of the Convention on Violence and Harassment in the world of work on the podium of the International Labour Conference in June 2019. 
In the middle, Marie Clarke Walker of CLC Canada, the workers spokesperson in the negotiations on the Convention, holding high the text of the new Convention. Standing on her left is Catelene Passchier.

FW: It was a long road to reach this Convention.  What were some of the challenges faced in getting the Convention adopted?

CP: For the last ten or fifteen years, employers have not been very interested in standard-setting. They say it’s too burdensome and detailed. There are also challenges when it comes to national debates on labour laws. Employers used a lot of ideological reasons and technical arguments in order to obstruct the process. For governments, it was a bit different because many of the problems they saw were of a legal nature regarding how their national legislation would relate to the new obligations.

Another major obstacle was, that in some regions of the world,—notably Africa and the Arab region—there are countries that have very restrictive and discriminatory legislation on LGBTQ issues. In the initial document, it was understood that the Convention was about the protection of all workers, and the idea was to mention the most important groups of workers that encounter violence and harassment explicitly. That led to an enormous clash last year. The difficulty was that we as unions clearly wanted these groups to be covered and protected by the Convention, but at the same time we were aware that we would need the support of those regions—especially in the absence of the support from the employers side to the Convention—to get a majority of governments in support of its adoption. There was a lot of creativity put into ensuring the text of the Convention is inclusive without mentioning explicitly the specific groups. Some say this compromise is unacceptable, but in the end most agree that the solution was wise because otherwise there would have been no Convention.  

Also, once something is on the agenda of the ILO as a standard-setting discussion, this normally means that there are two rounds of discussion in two consecutive years. With the second reading in 2019, there was initially a challenge. Since the ILO was celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, some argued to postpone the second reading to 2020. However, workers believed that it would be an excellent opportunity to adopt a convention during the 100 year anniversary with such an important standard, showing that the ILO can do something very relevant for the world of work and for vulnerable workers. We won that debate. And these were just some of the difficulties in negotiating and getting the Convention adopted.

FW: The Convention provides a minimum standard for protecting workers from violence and harassment.  It is only binding in those countries where it is ratified. The theme for the 16 Days of Activism 2019 is #RatifyILO190.  How can European brands be supportive of the lobby for ratification?

CP: So now the challenge is how to make sure countries are going to ratify, and here we will have to address some other challenges. First, countries have quite a bit of difficulty making the step from adopting a Convention to then ratifying it. For that you need the commitment of the government and a majority in your parliament, i.e. lobbying from unions and NGOs. Hopefully, there would also be pressure from employers on the national government. It would be good if there could be alliances between unions and employers’ organisations, brands and companies. 

When you look at the garment industry and the role that unions and brands can play, it’s important to identify this new Convention as something that needs to be put next to other key demands on the list, such as freedom of association and right to collective bargaining. We know that in the garment industry this issue of violence and harassment is happening everywhere, and that it is limiting workers in their daily work and in their lives, has a negative impact on health and safety, and leads to absenteeism. But we should also draw attention to the fact that is has a detrimental effect on productivity. There needs to be a broad vision and policy on how to deal with workplace culture and how to support an environment where people can work free of violence and harassment. Workplaces in which fundamental rights of workers are respected and gender equality is actively addressed have shown a much lower incidence of violence and harassment. This broad agenda is part of the Fair Wear approach with a number of issues, like in creating a workplace where unions can be freely active and support workers. There is always a combination of several issues that are all related.

Workplaces in which fundamental rights of workers are respected and gender equality is actively addressed have shown a much lower incidence of violence and harassment.

Catelene Passchier

And I think brands in the garment industry can play a proactive role. They can mention this issue as being important on the agenda. They can discuss it with public authorities and with factory owners in the countries where they source, saying that they expect action to be taken in this area. Brands can talk to their employer counterparts and employer organisations, too. It is important that they see the significance of having these issues addressed and regulated by countries, and ratification of the Convention is clearly a good incentive for this.

FW: Overall, should we be satisfied with the Convention?

CP: Sometimes when you’re in the middle of things you do not know anymore if what you are working on is good or bad. But I think we can be proud of the end results. It’s a good Convention. It’s inclusive of informal and precarious workers and it deals with all kinds of aspects of work, like commuting to and from the workplace. It addresses the challenges of domestic violence and how the effects spill over into the workplace. It also has recommendations with it [Recommendation 206] where you can read in more detail on how to practically implement the Convention. Significantly, it spells out that employers and governments need to take action in the area of health and safety at work, and include everyone in all of their policies and activities.

The formulation and adoption of ILO Convention 190 is the culmination of decades of work from trade unions and workers. Catelene Passchier provides a special union perspective on its development and challenges, as well as where pressure needs to be to ensure its ratification and how we can play a part.  Today is only the start of the Global 16 Days of Activism campaign focused on the ratification and implementation of this momentous Convention. Follow along with us on social media for the next 16 Days to hear more from Fair Wear, our partners and our brands about this significant campaign. If you’d like to take part, please use the hashtags #Global16DaysofActivism, #RatifyILO190 and/or #FairWear.