A long way to go before workplaces are safe
Former Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick’s recent fall from grace has brought the issue of workplace sexual harassment to the fore. This is all to the good. It is an important issue that deserves more than the intermittent attention it receives when high-profile cases are in the news. This is particularly true in India where legal protection for victims was lacking in statutory cover until a few years ago. Some progress has been made since then—but there is still a considerable distance to go.
Currently, the state’s response to workplace sexual harassment in India rests on two pillars. The first is guidelines issued by the Securities Exchange Board of India (Sebi) in 2012. These guidelines mandate that listed companies must file a Business Responsibility Report annually that lists details of the sexual harassment complaints the company has received.
The second is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. It has a tortuous history. In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a Rajasthan state government employee who attempted to prevent a child marriage and angered village patriarchs in the process, was assaulted and raped. The drawn out judicial process that followed was effective only in one respect: the Supreme Court-issued Vishaka Guidelines in 1997 that outlined procedural guidelines to be followed by establishments where a case of sexual harassment had occurred. But such remedies typically lack the robustness of statutory provisions. The latter was finally put in place a decade and a half later with the Act, which drew heavily upon the Guidelines.
The numbers since then are illuminating. In 2012-13, there were 63 complaints. By 2014-15, this had climbed to 450. 2015-16 saw 525 complaints—and the latest figures for 2016-17 from top companies like Infosys and Wipro show that the number of complaints has risen yet again. This is, counter-intuitively, a good thing. It is unlikely in the extreme that the scenario before the guidelines and Act was any better than it is now. The sharp rise in the number of complaints therefore indicates that cases that would have been overlooked earlier are now being reported. That, in turn, shows that companies are making some progress when it comes to putting Act-mandated processes and frameworks in place.
But plenty of issues remain. The Act mandates that employers must constitute a four-member internal complaints committee (ICC) in any branch or office that employs more than 10 people of any gender. The ICC must include a member of a non-governmental organization working for women’s causes—something that may not always be easy due to a paucity of such organizations and individuals. The Act also lays the onus for sensitizing employees to sexual harassment issues, and creating awareness of redressal mechanisms, on employers. By all accounts, this has been observed more in the breach. The failure is exacerbated by the fact that the hierarchies and power differentials inherent in any workplace make it important that employers go out of their way to create a framework wherein employees are able to lodge complaints against senior employees. A survey by the Indian National Bar Association conducted earlier this year shows that there is a long way to go. Of the 6,047 participants, 38% said they had faced harassment; 69% of them did not lodge a complaint.
The broader issues are even more difficult to address. The Sebi guidelines, with their philosophy of sunlight being the best disinfectant, might work to an extent when it comes to listed companies. But those are a minuscule fraction of the employers in India. When it comes to implementation and accountability, the preponderance of small and medium enterprises—not to mention the size of the informal sector—creates a conundrum. Sexual harassment of female shop-floor workers in the garment industry is endemic, for instance. Domestic and construction workers are also often targeted. They have little recourse to institutionalized redressal mechanisms.
There are no easy solutions. The Act is a belated if welcome measure, and state governments should take on the responsibility of enforcing implementation. But it is not enough without fundamental shifts in the economy and the functioning of the state. The Act’s provision that complainants dissatisfied with the ICC’s recommendations can approach the courts, for instance, is of little practical use in light of the sclerotic nature of the judicial process and the harassment women continue to face at the hands of the police in filing such complaints. More broadly, perhaps the single-best solution to harassment is greater gender diversity at the workplace—an area where India lags conspicuously. How this can best be achieved—improving pipelines is always preferable to hiring quotas—is an important debate.
Tackling workplace sexual harassment is an ethical imperative; such harassment infringes on an individual’s right to freedom of profession and occupation and undercuts the ideals of a modern democracy. And it is an economic imperative; getting and retaining more women, who are disproportionately targets of harassment, in the workforce has the potential to be a major growth driver. The Act is a beginning—but currently, only that.
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