US and International Perspectives on Sexual Harassment in Organized and Unorganized Workplaces

By: Adina Aamir, Cornell MPS Global Development – Class of ’23

On October 6, DC LERA hosted a webinar for its 3rd Annual Labor Law Forum to discuss US and international perspectives on sexual harassment in organized and unorganized workplaces.

Moderated by Tequila Brooks, a Comparative Labor and Employment Law Scholar, the discussion featured presentations by ITUC’s expert on gender equality and domestic work issues Marieke Koning, International Coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance Anannya Bhattacharjee, adjunct professor at University of Maryland and Michigan State University Stacy Hickox, and Princeton University postdoctoral fellow Garima Sharma.

Introducing  the discussion, Marieke Koning talked  about  the ITUC’s #RatifyC190 Campaign which calls on governments to adopt the International Labour Organization’s  Convention 190 (C190)1 on  Violence and Harassment in the World of Work.

C190 is the first international treaty to recognize the right of everyone to a world of work free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH).

ITUC’s #RatifyC190 Campaign

Representing 191 million workers from 167 countries, the ITUC has been supporting its affiliates in their initiatives to promote and advance C190. Marieke mentioned that countries like Lesotho, South Africa, and France have ratified C190, and other like Pakistan and Indonesia have made progress in making dignified and decent work a reality for all.

Following Marieke’s presentation on ITUC’s international efforts to end GBVH, Anannya Bhattacharjee  shifted the focus to an innovative example of reducing violence and harassment in clothing factories. The Dindigul Agreement, a first of its kind in the Asian garment industry, delivers power and support to women workers to monitor, prevent, and remediate GBVH collectively and with management.

AFWA: Dindigul Agreement

Negotiated by the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU), the agreement was established in response to the horrific violence and harassment that took the life of Jeyasre Kathiravel at a factory supplying to H&M. It legally holds both suppliers and fashion brands accountable to prevent such violence in their factories and has led to a remarkable 67% decrease in employee attrition rates and 98% grievance resolution rate.

After these two examples from the World of Work, Stacy Hickox turned the conversation to academic research on GBVH reduction. She discussed findings from the paper she co-authored with Michelle Kaminsky questioning whether arbitration, a form of alternative dispute resolution designated in collective bargaining agreements to resolve conflicts between employers and employees, is an effective method for resolving issues of workplace harassment. In cases where employers discipline employees based on reports of harassment, an alleged harasser can file a grievance requiring their employer to show a just cause for disciplining them. Hickox and Kaminsky found that in 54.1% of arbitrations they examined for the period 2008-2018 the discipline of the alleged harassers was upheld, while discipline was reduced in 29.7% and overturned in 16.2% of cases.

Their overall finding was that arbitration can sometimes offer a resolution in such situations but only if supported by an adequate policy framework. Rather than relying on arbitrators to eradicate harassment, Stacy recommends that employers and unions work together to holistically address the issue.

After some very engaging presentations, the last panelist of the series was Garima Sharma a postdoctoral scholar from Princeton University who discussed why workplaces are not better designed for women in this paper and explained how union agreements can support female-friendly jobs.

Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT) – Brazilian Trade Union

She used the example of Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), the largest trade union in Brazil, as it instituted a 50% quota for female representation in its leadership, and compared their performance with other unions that had not implemented any reforms. The study noted an increase in female centered amenities both in paper and practice with no change in wages, greater female workforce participation, and no evidence to indicate men were worse off due to the reforms. She concluded that firms can decrease the gender wage gap by simply shifting institutional priorities.

In summary, the webinar brought together various examples of frontline progress made to protect women in the workplace, and provided recommendations on areas of improvements, particularly highlighting the close collaboration between stakeholders such as unions, employers and international organizations required to reduce GBVH.

  1. C190 is one of the most comprehensive set of guidelines advancing international labor law by defining violence and harassment as a range of unacceptable behaviors and practices that result in physical, psychological, sexual, or economic harm, and notes the disproportionate impact of such acts faced by those of a particular gender or sex. It extends these protections to all workers, whether formal, informal, interns, applications, and more in all sectors, in the full World of Work. This includes any acts of violence and harassment occurring in the course of, linked with or arising out of work such as in spaces where workers take rest breaks, sanitary facilities, work-related trips, and employer-provided accommodation in addition to the workplace.

Stephen Silvia of American University gives book talk on Organizing Foreign-Owned Auto Plants in the U.S. South

By Amaury Pineda, Policy Analyst, Jobs with Justice

On May 24, 2023, Dr. Stephen Silvia of American University School of International Service gave a book talk on his recently published book, The UAW’s Southern Gamble: Organizing Workers at Foreign-Owned Vehicle Plants. The book talk was hosted by Jobs with Justice and catered by Moby Dick.

Using archives, newspapers, and interviews, Dr. Silvia shared some lessons from UAW organizing efforts in foreign companies in the US South. His findings indicate that while it is still possible to organize in the South, it has become harder. His research encompassed 16 organizing drives that took place in nine plants of four vehicle manufacturing companies – Nissan, Daimler Trucks North America, Mercedes US International, and Volkswagen – from 1984 to 2019.

First, Dr. Silvia unpacked the cases of two Nissan plants in Smyrna, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi, where the UAW failed to win a union, but for different reasons. In the case of Smyrna, TN, the UAW was unsuccessful mainly because of a set of anti-union innovations oriented at creating the idea that managers and the rank-in-file were all one. For example, they all wore the same uniform, and the company eliminated the executive cafeteria. The company also engaged in more aggressive tactics. For example, the company gave workers reduced-rate rental cars, screened workers to identify union sympathizers, installed monitors in the workplace through which they ran negative information about the UAW, and had one-on-one meetings to check on workers’ satisfaction. These tactics were part of the ‘Union Avoidance Playbook’ devised by Nissan’s Head of Operations, Marvin Runyon, and were key to preventing organizing efforts in this plant.

At the Canton, MS plant, the UAW used a new strategy that aimed to blend union organizing efforts with the civil rights movement. Nevertheless, the union failed to organize this plant. In Canton, workers had experienced considerable poverty before Nissan’s arrival and did not want to risk job security for the potential of better working conditions.

Dr. Silvia also explained how international cooperation can help in organizing efforts, highlighting the UAW’s success at Daimler Trucks North America in Mount Holly, North Carolina. After winning the union election and negotiating for their first contract for almost two years, the UAW realized they would have to strike. However, before doing so, a few of the union representatives traveled to Germany and managed to get the head of the Daimler Group Works Council, Karl Feuerstein, to support their cause. The UAW got its first contract about two months after Feuerstein phoned the American executives.

The case of the Mercedes US plant in Vance, Alabama, illustrates how a ‘split workforce’ diminishes organizing efforts. Dr. Silvia used the term ‘split workforce’ to refer to situations where half or so of the workers are temporary employees, and the rest are permanent workers. Notwithstanding UAW’s many efforts to organize Mercedes-Benz workers in the Alabama plant, their campaign never picked up steam because Mercedes’ permanent employees were paid above the UAW’s contract rate and also received many benefits.

In other words, permanent employees did not care to organize because they already had a good deal vis-à-vis their temporary colleagues who received low wages and no benefits. Although temporary workers had all the reasons to organize, they were kept in line under the promise of a permanent position, yet only a handful ever made it.

During the discussion, a DC LERA member mentioned the report “Job Quality and Community Well-Being in Mississippi and Alabama’s Manufacturing Facilities,” where the authors found that non-unionized workers face many other issues besides wages, such as work-family balance due to rotating shifts. When asked whether unions pay attention to these issues, Dr. Silvia noted that yes, he saw this phenomenon at different plants. For example, in Volkswagen Chattanooga, the main discussion still is paid time off, and at Nissan, itis workplace injuries. The UAW paid attention to issues that resonate with workers to make the case for organizing.

See HERE for a more detailed version of this report.