Violence and harassment are societal problems that extend into the workplace, both in Canada and around the world. Fortunately, locally we have developed options for employees that have been impacted by workplace misconduct. Employers are also subject to obligations to prevent and investigate workplace harassment.

Efforts continue on a global scale to combat the problem. A recent addition to the arsenal is the International Labour Organization’s Violence and Harassment Convention. This international agreement between countries was adopted in 2019, and Canada recently agreed to be bound by it. This article takes a look at the Convention and its impact on Canadian workplaces.

Canada already has laws in place to address workplace violence and harassment

At both the federal and provincial levels, Canada has several laws already in place that are intended to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace.

For example, the Ontario Occupational Health and Safety Act requires employers to take certain actions concerning workplace violence and harassment. They need to prepare policies, design programs to implement them and give workers information on the content of these policies and programs. If there is a complaint of workplace harassment, employers need to conduct an investigation that meets specified requirements. There are also specific workplace violence obligations, such as assessing the risks specific to the workplace.

In addition, employees have rights, for example, under the Ontario Human Rights Code, to not be discriminated against or harassed on a range of listed grounds, including race, sex, sexual orientation, age and disability.

The Violence and Harassment Convention aims to protect people in the world of work from violence and harassment

The Violence and Harassment Convention has a wide-ranging scope, aiming to protect workers and other persons in the world of work from violence and harassment. These people include employees but also others like people in training, volunteers, job applicants and employers. It applies to violence and harassment in a range of settings beyond simply the workplace, including during work-related trips and through work-related communication.

The Convention defines “violence and harassment” 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 [that is, violence and harassment directed at persons because of their sex or gender, or affecting persons of a particular sex or gender disproportionately, and includes sexual harassment].”

Canada ratified the Convention after taking a leading role in its negotiation

Canada was one of the leading players in the development of the Convention, which is significant as it is the first international agreement specifically aimed at stopping workplace violence and harassment. Canada chaired the committee that negotiated the Convention in 2018 and 2019.

On January 30, 2023, Canada deposited its instrument of ratification, which is the document necessary for the country to become bound by the terms of the agreement. Under the terms of the Convention, it means that Canada is legally bound to comply with the agreement from January 30, 2024.

The Convention will not apply directly as part of Canadian law. However, the obligations in the Convention will need to be implemented from this date.

The Convention requires its parties to do a range of things to combat workplace violence and harassment

The Convention’s obligations are split across the following four main sections.

Core principles

Countries that have ratified the Convention need to adopt an inclusive, integrated and gender-responsive approach to prevent and eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work. They also need to realize fundamental rights like freedom of association and eliminating discrimination.

Protection and prevention

Convention parties must adopt laws defining and prohibiting violence and harassment, along with taking appropriate prevention measures. Importantly for employers, countries are required to adopt laws requiring them to prevent violence and harassment, such as through employer policies on violence and harassment, identifying risks and hazards, and providing information and training to workers.

Enforcement and remedies

Parties need to take appropriate measures to enforce their violence and harassment laws and also provide remedies in cases of violence and harassment, such as investigation procedures at the workplace level and external mechanisms like access to courts or tribunals.

Guidance, training and awareness-raising

The Convention requires its parties to seek to ensure that workplace violence and harassment are covered in national policies, that employers and workers have guidance or training on violence and harassment and that awareness-raising campaigns take place.

Canada’s plans to implement the Convention are currently unclear

The Convention specifically permits countries to design their own national approaches to implementing the anti-workplace violence and harassment obligations. It states that existing laws can be extended or adapted to cover violence or harassment, or specific measures can be developed.

The Government of Canada has been working with the provincial and territorial governments to make sure that they are all in a position to ensure compliance with the Convention’s requirements.

At this stage, we do not know whether Canadian jurisdictions will simply rely on existing laws and measures to implement the Convention (like those mentioned above for Ontario) or whether changes may be forthcoming before the Convention enters into force for Canada on January 30, 2024.

Contact Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP in Toronto for Advice on Workplace Violence and Harassment

The experienced employment and labour lawyers at Grosman Gale Fletcher Hopkins LLP follow the developments in workplace law so that they are ready to help you when you need it. We assist organizations to comply with their workplace violence and harassment obligations and employees to enforce their rights in the event of a violation. If you have questions regarding workplace violence or harassment, contact us through our online form or call us at 416.364.9599.