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Did MeToo Create A Safer Workplace For Women In India?

The progress is slow, the resistance to recognition and redress of sexual harassment in the workplace is high, but across India, the tide might just be turning

Eyes wide shut: Ink on paper by Bakula Nayak (2019)
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NN, an employee of a well-known real estate financing company, had a har­rowing time with her boss, a senior vice-president and father figure to everyone in the organisation. From an occasional complim­ent about her looks, it became a daily irrit­ation. He would touch her inappropriately and pre­­te­nd it was an accidental brush. He would suddenly creep up behind her when she was working and stand uncomfortably close to her. Since her husband’s business was going through a financially critical period, she needed to stay in the job, at least for a while as she earned a high salary. Two months into the harassment, she slapped him one day in full glare of everyone in the office.

“I told him if he ever harassed me again, I would throw acid on his face. I was served a notice for the slap and threat, but he was let off as the management did not believe that an “old, respectable man like him” could indulge in sexual harassment. When the Human Resource head told me this, all I could do was laugh. It was so funny. They started finding fault with my work. My promotion was held back and it became a very hostile work environment,” says NN to Outlook. Subsequently, she quit the job and her tormentor went on to become a pre­si­dent of the division.

Despite the organisation having an internal complaints redressal system as mandated by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013—also known as POSH Act—the company chose to keep NN’s complaint in abeyance and not act on it.

Cutting across various sizes of org­anisations, Outlook spoke to company owners, experts in the labour sector, female employees and human resource personnel, to gauge the route a complaint traveled until action was tak­en. While many of the big corporates have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment and bullying of female employees at workplaces, the­re are others who treat such complaints with utter secrecy to ensure that the company name is not besmirched, said sources in the know of comp­any policies. Many of the mid-level and smaller organisations who responded to queries see­med to have done away with the Internal Com­p­laints Committee (ICC) as laid down by the Supreme Court in the Vishaka Committee gui­delines.

While many big corporates have zero-tolerance for sexual harassment, others treat such complaints with secrecy to ensure the company name is not besmirched.

Many human resource personnel felt that with the work-from-home culture in force, and the strength of the female workforce reducing in numbers, the mandated committee can be set up “as and when required”. Many who had Vishaka committees in place, have done away with these.

“This is non-negotiable. Even if there is a single female employee on the premises, the said committee has to be in place. Even if the lone female employee is a casual labourer, this committee has to be set up,” says Jasmine Joseph Melvin, general manager (Human Res­o­urces) at OC Specialties Private Limited. “It is not about the number of female employees in an organisation. This internal committee is compulsory under government rules,” she adds.

The Supreme Court (SC) had laid down the Vishaka guidelines in 1997 in a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by women’s rights gro­ups under the collective platform called Vish­aka, after a social worker from Rajasthan, Bha­nwari Devi was reportedly gangraped in 1992, as revenge for preventing a one-year old girl from being married off. In its order, the SC defined sexual harassment, said the Vish­aka guidelines are legally binding, and also imposed the three key obligations—prohibition, prevention and redressal—on institutions.

The SC also made it mandatory for organisations with 10 or more employees to establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to address complaints made by women pertaining to sexual harassment at the workplace. This Act protects the rights of all women—working or visiting any work place in any capacity.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development has published a handbook on Sexual Harassment Of Women at Workplace. According to the Act, there are five circumstances that amount to sexual harassment. These include: implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in employment; implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment; implied or explicit threat about present or future employment status; interference with work or creating an offensive or hostile work environment; and, humiliating treatment likely to affect the woman complainant’s health or safety.

As per the Act, the complaint must be made within three months from the date of the act. The ICC must probe and submit its findings to the employer within 10 days of completing the probe.  The identity of the woman cannot be revealed, the law also says.

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Squeeze Ink on paper by Bakula Nayak (2019)

Under the Vishaka Committee guidelines, the employer is held responsible for complaints of sexual harassment at the workplace and it is mandatory and binding on the employer to duly address the said complaint. The categorisation of workplace is on a numerical basis and not based on socio economic terms. Any organisation with a minimum of 10 employees must set up an internal committee based on recommendations laid down by the Vishaka committee for the prohibition, prevention and redressal of sexual harassment at the workplace. This is not an option but is mandated by law.

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“For POSH to be effective in its truest sense, every woman must be the voice of women (VOW),” Jasmine tells Outlook. “If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one else will. An empowered woman will empower other women,” she adds.

Gender is an important marker of marginalisation at workplaces. “Female employees in smaller organisations with fewer than 10 empl­o­yees have no redressal system. This must be relooked at and addressed,” says Sangeeta Meh­ra, a lawyer handling one such case. In the unorganised sector, where the org­anisation has less than 10 employees, leaving or switching jobs is often not an option for the victim.

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Telemarketer Sonali W, 22, faced sexual harassment from a colleague for seve­ral months with no redress. In an organisation with just six employees, she was treated as a pariah when she complained about it. With no support from her family, she eventually quit the job. She’s wary of working in smaller companies, she says.

According to an expert familiar with the lab­our sector, over 90 per cent of women are eng­aged in the unorganised sector. “They do not have any redressal forum. If they face harassment, they quit the job and often suffer loss of income. There are so many call centres, coa­c­h­ing centres and telemarketing organisations who have no Vishaka Committees. Those who are harassed, quit their job. Often, the female complainant is asked to leave the job, while the aggressor continues to be in his post within these organisations. The general attit­ude of most employers is that women emplo­y­ees are an easily expendable human resource,” said the source.

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According to this source, in the post-Covid work scenario, there has been a fall in the num­ber of female employees across sectors. “Women were told to quit, or were unable to rejoin work due to familial compulsions, or they are not being employed. Most employers have regressive mindsets,” the source added.

A 2022 survey by the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce revealed that over half of all female working professi­onals in India had faced sexual harassment.

A female employee working in a prominent company narrated an incident when she was asked by the HR president of the organisation to file a complaint against an aggressor on her last day at work. “There was this highly-placed person at the organisation who would say thi­ngs to me and tried to be extra-friendly. I wou­ld not pay attention and dealt with him in a firm way, without getting the organisation inv­olved. However, on my last day at work, while I was leaving office, the HR president came to me and asked me about this person. He told me to file a complaint against him to help others come forward. I filed a complaint. So many other women came forward and followed suit. An inquiry was immediately set up and he was sacked,” the woman says.

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According to her, though the organisation was aware of this man’s behaviour, they were unwilling to take action without a written complaint. “A written complaint is concrete proof against an aggressor. This way, no one can sue the organisation,” she adds.

In 2022, a survey was conducted by the Cou­ncil of Ethics of the Women’s Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. It revealed that more than half of all female working professi­onals in India admitted that they had been subjected to inappropriate touching or other physical advances at the workplace.

The survey listed some acts that are inappropriate and are defined as “offensive” under Indian laws, and asked respondents to mark them. About 70.6 per cent revealed that inappropriate touching included pinching, patting, rubbing or purposely brushing against the other person (female).

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An estimated 70.1 per cent stated that they had received inappropriate videos, images (which included pornography) and indecent gifts. About 69 per cent marked demand/requ­est for sexual favours. About 44.8 per cent of those who faced sexual haras­sment had registered a formal complaint, rev­ealed the survey.

Entrepreneur Pearl Serrao has been a part of the male-dominated insurance sector since the past 18 years. Attached to a large private Indian insurance conglomerate, Pearl says the company’s zero tolerance policy to harassm­ent, including bullying of employees, makes it a great workplace.

“Generally, sales departm­ents are places whe­re women tend to leave on dot. But in my company, women employees often work lon­ger hours in this department due to the safety factor. There is orientation of all employees about the company’s policies regarding sexual harassment and redressal met­hods. There are cameras everywhere in the off­ices and premi­ses. A regular auditing of the camera feed is done. Anyone found guilty is immediately dismissed from service,” Pea­rl tells Outlook. Per­haps, the tide is slowly turning.

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(This appeared in the print edition as "Towards a Safer Workplace")

Haima Deshpande in Mumbai

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