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One in Five Workers Worldwide Has Experienced Workplace Violence or Harassment

The one-sentence summary from new research on global adverse work experiences is grim: “Violence and harassment at work is a widespread phenomenon around the world.”

The Experiences of violence and harassment at work: A global first survey, jointly released by the United Nation’s International Labour Organization, Lloyd’s Register Foundation, and Gallup, found that more than one in five people who work have experienced some form of violence or harassment as part of their work experience.

In the report preface, leaders from the three organizations explained the ambitions of the project.

“Violence and harassment at work causes harm to individuals, families, businesses, and societies,” they wrote. “It affects people’s lives, dignity, health, and wellbeing. It also exacerbates inequality in societies and undermines business productivity. There should be no place for, and no tolerance of, violence and harassment at work—anywhere. To prevent and address it effectively, we need to know it better. We need to know which types of violence and harassment at work are more prevalent and where, and who is more exposed to it and why.”

The research classified violence and harassment into three categories: physical violence and harassment, psychological violence and harassment, and sexual violence and harassment. It is based on interviews conducted in 2021 of nearly 75,000 people 15-years-old or older in 121 different countries. The report broke out results primarily by geographic region, gender, age, and high- versus low-income countries.

Overall, workers in the Americas reported higher rates of workplace violence and harassment (34 percent compared to the worldwide average of 23 percent). In addition, workers in high-income countries (32 percent) had experienced workplace violence and harassment at nearly twice the rate of low- and lower-middle income countries (17 percent). Psychological violence and harassment (18 percent) was the most common type of aggression, followed by physical violence and harassment (9 percent), and sexual violence and harassment (6 percent).

The researchers then analyzed the types of workers most at risk of experiencing workplace violence and harassment. 

  • Younger people were most likely to have faced violence and harassment.

Worldwide, youth in employment (ages 15–24) were most likely to have experienced violence and harassment at work within the past five years, with a prevalence of 23.3 percent. This figure decreases with age, from 20.2 percent among employed persons aged 25–34 to 12.0 percent for those aged 55 years and older. When looking at gender differences, young women were more likely than young men to have experienced violence and harassment at work within the past five years (26.8 percent versus 20.8 percent). In addition, both younger women and men have reported higher prevalence of violence and harassment compared to other age cohorts within the same sex. In other words, more than one in four young women has experienced violence and harassment at work in the last five years, compared to one in ten women aged 55 years or older; two in ten young men reported such experiences in the last five years, compared to a little more than one in ten men aged 55 years or older.

  • Migrant women in employment have been especially at risk.

Worldwide, employed migrants reported a higher prevalence of violence and harassment at work in the last five years. Overall, migrants were 3.1 percentage points more likely to have experienced violence and harassment compared to nonmigrants. Migrant women were 8.7 percentage points more likely than migrant men to have experienced violence and harassment (26.6 percent versus 17.9 percent). Migrant women were also more likely than nonmigrant women to face any form of violence and harassment (26.6 percent versus 18.4 percent).

  • Wage and salaried women were more at risk than self-employed women and men.

Wage and salaried workers were more likely than those who are self-employed to have experienced violence and harassment in the last five years (19.0 percent versus 16.8 percent) (figure 2.6). Among wage and salaried workers, women were 2.5 percentage points more at risk of violence and harassment than men. Moreover, wage and salaried women were also worse off than self-employed women, being 6.0 percentage points more likely to have experienced violence and harassment. By contrast, the difference between wage and salaried men and self-employed men was very minor.

  • People who have experienced discrimination in life were more likely to have experienced violence and harassment at work.

The 2021 Lloyd’s Register Foundation World Risk Poll included a series of questions about whether a person has ever been discriminated against based on five key characteristics: gender, nationality/race/ethnic group, skin color, religion, and disability status. The results help shed light on the relationship between people’s overall vulnerability to discrimination in public and private life and their likelihood to face violence and harassment at work. Globally, people who have been discriminated against based on at least one of the aforementioned grounds were nearly three times as likely as those who have not been discriminated against to say they have experienced violence and harassment during the course of their working lives. The gap was widest in the case of discrimination based on gender: Nearly five in ten people who have been victims of gender-based discrimination have also faced violence and harassment at work, compared to nearly two in ten of those who have not suffered discrimination based on gender.

As part of its BBC 100 Women series, the BBC examined new terminology that has emerged to describe sexual harassment more broadly.

“In Italian, ‘mano morta’ means ‘dead hand,’” the BBC reported. “It is discussed between mothers and daughters, groups of friends complain about it in their chats, and teenage girls are warned to be vigilant as they make their way to school.”

The phrase describes situations where a lingering hand rests against a woman’s private parts, such as on a crowded bus or train. More terms in the report: “stealthing” is removing a condom during intercourse without consent, “downblousing” is taking a photo of a woman’s bosom with the phone angled to get as revealing a shot as possible, and “marital rape” is the act of sexual intercourse with one's spouse without the spouse's consent. 

The BBC interviewed Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive scientist on why these labels are important.

“How you describe an event or an accident can dramatically change how we blame and punish the people involved,” she said. “For example, it used to be that sexual assault victims might be asked in court, ‘And is that when he kissed you?’ Kissing is this really nice thing for most people, but not when it’s forced oral contact with a stranger. So if you call it ‘forced oral contact’ instead, that creates a very different image in the mind of the jury—that specificity creates a different emotional response than a word that is more familiar or generic.”

The survey results in the global research were released with the idea to gain a sense of the magnitude of violence and harassment at work, as well as the factors that might prevent peoplel from talking about it. The survey was also designed to be a spring-board to launch further research and analysis to eliminate workplace harassment and violence.

“This global survey is part of a broader effort to acclerate action to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, through which the global community has committed to transforming our world by 2030,” the survey leaders wrote. “This objective includes creating a better world of work based on equity, sustainability, and respect for rights. This report was designed to catalyze action. Everyone has the right to a world of work free from violence and harassment.”

Security Management and ASIS have many security-related resources on reporting and preventing workplace violence and harassment. Check out these for additional context: