The International Labor Organization (ILO) has initiated a course on gender equality in the workplace in response to international demand. The course focused on sexual discrimination in the workplace, and how international labor laws can be applied appropriately when dealing with gender issues in court. 25 African judges attended the course in order to improve the way in which they apply international labor standards in the context of gender.
The week-long course, sponsored by the Bureau of Gender Equality of the ILO, took place recently in Turin, Italy. It focused on ways to prioritize cases involving employees who have been discriminated against or sexually harassed, especially cases where the worker is living with HIV/AIDS or is pregnant. Jane Hodges, who heads the ILO’s Bureau for Gender Equality, said the course focused on several areas that are receiving a lot of litigation.
“Many cases on sexual discrimination, including dismissal of a worker who refuses advances of an undisciplined and unethical employer, but also situations where the workplace itself is made to be so hostile and intimidating that workers actually leave, is a form of constructive dismissal, as the judges like to call it,” explained Hodges.
Among the international group of attendees were African judges.
“It was a fascinating group, including judge-presidents and senior judges from Botswana, Malawi, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia. And they were bringing very interesting legal issues about their constitutional possibility to quote international standards. For example, the ILO standard that says there shall be no sex discrimination based on sex in the workplace, for example, in the form of dismissal because one is pregnant,” noted Hodges, who also explained that many English-speaking jurisdictions, whether in Africa, the Pacific or Caribbean islands, or Europe, translated international law into their own domestic legal systems. However, those countries that follow civil law can use international law directly.
“If one had signed the convention, for example, to give domestic workers equal rights, most of them of course we know are women. And the government, let’s say, like South Africa, has a piece of legislation, a determination, that translates that international law into the South African domestic legal system. That means that domestic workers who feel they are poorly treated at work, underpaid, denied days off, physically mistreated, can use the domestic law, the South African text, and use the international law to back it up,” said Hodges.
One of the main issues in sexual discrimination cases is the reporting of the abuse. Many women and even men do not report these types of incidents because they may be in a community where one is stigmatized for mentioning an incident.
Hodges said this problem was brought up many times during the course: “Taking a case on one’s own, particularly in a lot of cases--let’s take the sexual harassment or the maternity dismissal example--these are younger women who might not have the time or the money to actually engage in litigation,” said Hodges, who added, “that is why the ILO has tried over the years to help improve situations, usually set up under simple laws, for alternative dispute resolution, so that the labor commissioners, the ministries can help in a less litigious, less conflicting, less costly environment, [and can] help settle a dispute between an aggrieved worker and the employer.”
A good example of how tools learned from the course were applied in real life is in Botswana.
“The weakness in the domestic legislation regarding essential services, and where the workers there can strike, that weakness was strengthened by reference to international jurisprudence, particularly from the ILO on the subject. Likewise, a number of cases concerning unfair sexist inheritance laws that had actually been upheld at the level of customary courts in that country, Botswana, have now been held to be unfair under their constitution. And the courts have clearly said that women can inherit alongside their brothers when there is a death in the family,” explained Hodges.
Ultimately, said Hodges, the judicial system needs to do more in the area of publishing the outcome of these types of cases, so that other court systems can be better informed. She said many of the countries that have discrimination issues also have huge poverty challenges, so the civil service may not be regularly publishing judgements. However, she said with the help of international donor support, and by educating labor courts, the regular publishing of judgements can help bring about social justice in all courts.