On January 30, 2023, Canada deposited its instrument of ratification for the International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 190, the Violence and Harassment Convention 2019. This is important because it is the first international labour standard that specifically addresses violence and harassment in the workplace.

Workplace violence and harassment remain problems around the world, and Canada, unfortunately, is not immune. According to Statistics Canada, 25% of women and 17% of men experienced workplace sexual harassment in 2020, and in 2022 5.6% of employees under federal jurisdiction reported personal experiences of harassment in the preceding two years.

This article looks at the new treaty and its obligations, along with Canada’s role in the treaty’s adoption and its domestic application.

What does ratification do?

There are normally two stages in agreeing to be bound by the terms of a treaty or convention, which is an international agreement made between countries. Firstly, a country signs the treaty. Then it applies its own domestic procedures before ratification. At this second ratification stage, the country becomes legally bound by the treaty, provided that the treaty has entered into force.

Under the terms of the Violence and Harassment Convention, it comes into force for a particular country twelve months after ratification. As a result, the treaty became legally binding for Canada on January 30, 2024.

What does the convention aim to achieve?

The Violence and Harassment Convention states that it protects workers and other people in the world of work from “violence and harassment.” This is defined as:  

“a range of unacceptable behaviours and practices, or threats thereof, whether a single occurrence or repeated, that aims at, result in, or are likely to result in physical, psychological, sexual or economic harm, and includes gender-based violence and harassment.”

The Convention has a broad scope of application, applying to persons in the world of work beyond just strictly employees, such as interns, volunteers and job seekers. It applies to the public and private sectors and in a wide range of settings, for example, work-related trips, communication, accommodation and commutation. 

What was Canada’s role in the convention negotiations?

Canada has been heavily involved in adopting the Violence and Harassment Convention. It chaired the committee that negotiated the Convention in 2018 and 2019 and actively participated in the negotiations that led to its adoption. 

In the following years, the Canadian Government worked with the provincial and territorial governments to deliver on its commitment to ratify the treaty. The Convention will apply across all Canadian jurisdictions. 

What do the parties need to do to comply with the convention?

The Violence and Harassment Convention contains a number of key obligations for countries that have ratified the treaty. Some of these are summarized below.

Firstly, they need to adopt, in accordance with national law, “an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach” to preventing and eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work.

Secondly, several specific obligations are related to protecting workers by preventing violence and harassment. The Convention requires parties to adopt laws and regulations to define and prohibit violence and harassment in the world of work. They need to take appropriate measures to prevent violence and harassment.  They also need to adopt laws and regulations requiring employers to take steps to prevent violence and harassment, in particular and so far as is reasonably practicable, in several listed areas, including adopting and implementing a workplace policy on violence and harassment.

Thirdly, the Convention requires parties to take appropriate enforcement measures, such as ensuring the existence of remedies, such as complaint and investigation procedures and legal remedies.

Finally, parties must ensure that violence and harassment are addressed in relevant national policies and that employers and workers are provided with guidance.

What does the convention say about gender-based violence and harassment?

Gender-based violence and harassment are also key focus areas of the Convention. In addition to forming part of the overarching definition of violence and harassment, several of the treaty’s obligations require a specific action to address this problem. For example, parties need to adopt laws and regulations requiring employers to take appropriate steps to prevent gender-based violence and harassment. 

What impact will the convention have in Canada?

Canada ratified the Convention to address worker violence and harassment domestically and abroad. This is clear from the Minister of Labour’s statement upon ratification:

“Canada is joining countries around the world to protect workers and make sure they have the safe and respectful workplaces they deserve. Canadians can take pride in this milestone. We’re stepping up for workers’ rights both in Canada and around the world.”

As can be seen from the obligations outlined above, parties to the Convention have the flexibility to implement many obligations in different ways that suit their domestic systems.

Canada already has federal and provincial legislation that protects workers’ human rights and responds to violence and harassment. For example, Ontario law requires employers to investigate workplace harassment

The Convention states that its provisions can be applied by extending or adapting existing measures to cover violence and harassment and developing specific measures where necessary. It is still being determined at this stage whether Canadian jurisdictions intend to amend employment law in order to implement this Convention or simply rely on existing measures to satisfy the obligations.

Contact Haynes Law Firm in Toronto for Advice on Workplace Violence and Harassment

Haynes Law Firm represents employees and employers in all types of human rights claims. We help our employer clients understand their workplace safety and harassment compliance obligations. We also represent employees that have experienced harassment of any kind in the workplace or been the subject of discrimination based on a ground protected under the law. To discuss how the employment law team at Haynes Law Firm can assist you, please contact us online or call us at 416.593.2731.