Fighting harassment in the workplace is a radical act
To contest workplace harassment is a radical act. It is more than standing up for one’s individual rights and dignity. On the one hand, in many cases, challenging harassment means exposing unlawful payment practices, abusive working conditions, or corruption. In my NGO work with Romanians who have faced workplace harassment, I have learned that those practices and conditions are oftentimes the root causes of violence and harassment in the world of work. Once workers start contesting such practices, they are punished by isolation, requested to attend endless sham disciplinary commissions, or are compromised professionally. These are a few tactics that employers use when workers’ contracts are not terminated unlawfully but are pushed to resign.
On the other hand, during the process of contesting harassment in courts or before county labour inspectorates, workers find themselves standing against local, and even national, politicized systems. In their case, the contestation of workplace harassment has a different dimension of radicalness: that of exposing deeper layers of corruption, such as employers’ backdoor agreements with labour inspectors to ignore workers’ complaints, or, sometimes, exposing the limits of a legal system that has very little regard for the right to work in just and favourable conditions.
From factory workers, drivers, teachers, doctors, workers in the informal economy to journalists and politicians, harassment in the world of work can affect every worker and occupational sector; sometimes to the extent that it is considered part of the job. But just as harassment is everywhere, workers’ resistance must also be everywhere. That is why, in Romania, the Association for Liberty and Equality of Gender has brought together NGOs and labour unions asking for the ratification of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) 2019 Convention on the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work – a Convention whose adoption at the ILO was supported by the Romanian state, but which three years later remains unratified.
The adoption of the ILO Convention (and its accompanying Recommendation) was a watershed moment in the fight for workers’ right to safe, healthy, and dignified working conditions. It provides the first internationally accepted definition of violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment, and explicitly recognises the physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm that victims of harassment suffer. It, thus, guarantees that all forms of harassment are prohibited against all workers (including those in informal economy, migrants, and workers with other vulnerabilities), in all areas connected to work. It places the onus on prevention, asking Governments to invest in identifying occupational sectors and workers at high-risk of being harassed and devise efficient prevention strategies. Notably, it also recognizes domestic violence as an occupational safety and health issue, calling on states to ensure that victims can benefit from paid flexible leave, can suspend their work contracts and reduce or reorganise their work time.
In a recent study on the limits of Romania’s anti-harassment laws, my co-authors and I make the case for the ratification of the ILO Convention. In general, the law views harassment in the workplace as a form of discrimination based on particular identity criteria, which unnecessarily limits the sphere of legal protection. According to the work health and safety legislation, as long as workers are not subject to technical accidents or intoxication due to the tools and substances they work with, their work environment is generally considered safe and healthy. The current legislation does not protect informal workers, nor does it protect workers from third-party harassment (such as harassment from clients); and it operates with narrow and outdated concepts of what the ‘workplace’ means. Against this background, the judiciary has developed a practice through which, in many cases, workers have to show that they were harassed for a period longer than six months in order for the harm they suffered to be recognized judicially as harassment. Additionally, while recent laws have strengthened employers’ obligations to prevent and combat harassment in the workplace, the labour inspectorates in charge of monitoring the implementation of these legal obligations are highly ineffective.
The ratification of the ILO Convention would set in motion a legal mechanism to improve the national legislative framework, and better monitor its implementation. Every six years, Romania would be required to report at the ILO on the implementation of the Convention – a top-down requirement that would complement the bottom-up efforts that civil society has undertaken to press for better laws, policies, and more effective implementation of anti-harassment measures.
Challenging harassment is a luxury for most workers. They pay with the cost of their physical and mental health, their job, and expensive fees for legal services. Those who muster the courage to do it should be protected and should know that the law is on their side.
Georgiana Epure  is a Legal Associate with the Open Society Justice Initiative, where she works on human rights litigation. She is also the President of the Association for Liberty and Equality of Gender in Romania.