Mumbai: As mandatory reporting of sexual harassment cases at the workplace reaches its fourth year, there seems to be a stark difference between the mechanism instituted in public sector undertakings (PSUs) and their private peers. Data shows that the number of reported instances of sexual harassment at the workplace was higher in private sector companies compared with state-owned ones during financial year 2018.

According to annual reports and boutique anti-sexual harassment advisory Complykaro.com, among the nine PSUs in the 50-scrip Nifty index, only four reported cases (1-18), three firms—Coal India Ltd, GAIL Ltd and Power Grid Corp. of India Ltd—had zero cases while two companies—Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd and NTPC Ltd—have yet not published their annual reports.

In contrast, among 41 private companies in the Nifty, 12 didn’t report any case of sexual harassment during the year. The maximum number of cases were reported in information technology (IT), banking and finance and pharmaceuticals companies. The number of sexual harassment cases at work increased by 5.81% in FY18 from the previous financial year to 601 cases, according to the annual reports of India’s 50 largest companies by market valuation. In FY17, the number of complaints were 568, a jump of 16.16% from FY16.

However, this trend may not necessarily mean that incidence of sexual harassment at work has increased in FY18, as such cases usually tend to be under-reported. As companies engage more intensely with their staff members and invest in awareness and education programmes, an increasing number of employees feel empowered to come forward and register their complaints.

What is curious is the lower incidence of reporting in PSUs. This could also suggest that the process of installing the appropriate monitoring and redressal mechanisms is still under way at these companies. “One of the reasons for the higher number of reported cases in IT and finance sector is because women are generally more empowered and aware of their rights. There is also higher workforce movement in these sectors which helps proliferate that awareness," said Ajay Raghavan, partner and head of the employment law practice at law firm Trilegal. “Other sectors such as manufacturing are still male-dominated bastions where awareness is low and jobs are not easy to come by. Consequently victims are more circumspect about raising complaints about fear of retribution," said Raghavan.

Wipro Ltd received 101 complaints during FY18, or one-sixth of the total number of Nifty50 cases, under the relatively new anti-sexual harassment law. While private sector lender ICICI Bank has reported 99 complaints, Bengaluru-based Infosys Ltd reported 77 cases, followed by another IT firm TCS Ltd (62 cases) and Axis Bank Ltd (47 cases).

The anti-sexual harassment law—the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013—mandates listed companies to report the number of sexual harassment cases and the steps taken for redressal. The companies started reporting such incidents after the law was implemented in 2014. Sexual harassment at work includes unwelcome acts or behaviour such as physical contact and advance, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, or showing pornography.

“We want employees to be aware, alert and sensitive and come forward to report. An increasing trend of complaints shows the increasing awareness and the conviction in the organization process to be able to address the concerns," said Sarika Pradhan, chairperson of Prevention of Sexual Harassment Committee at Wipro Ltd. “This also means that the robustness of the system allows employees to share their concerns without fear of retribution."

According to Vishal Kedia, founder of Complykaro Services Pvt. Ltd, from a policy standpoint, every company will have a committee on sexual harassment cases but the question is, are the companies doing enough? Merely putting out posters is not enough. There has to be assurance and awareness. “Proper interventions by companies are required so that there is awareness and accessibility for the employees," said Kedia.

Most of the companies that top the list asserted they had strong anti-sexual harassment policies and governance models to report and curb sexual harassment of any form.

An increase in the number of reported cases is an indication that its employees trust the company’s process to do the right thing and address their concerns, said Richard Lobo, head of human resources and executive vice president at Infosys Ltd. He claimed Infosys makes an effort to educate the entire workforce.

When most public sector listed companies have failed to convince the victims to raise their voices, several sector observers that Mint spoke to said the country’s richest civic body, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) has a robust mechanism in place. The civic body, which has 40% women among its 1.1 lakh workers, has created an ecosystem that helps report any untoward incidents.

“BMC has 106 departments, and each of them has its own committee to deal with any sexual harassment cases. Also, the municipal body is running an awareness programme every month," said a senior BMC official on condition of anonymity. “The city-based non-governmental organization, Savitribai Phule Gender Resource Centre is helping the municipal corporation to formulate rules as well as for redressal," said the official.

Industry experts say data show that women working in the corporate sector have started to raise their voice against sexual harassment at the workplace, something considered taboo just a few years ago.

An Axis Bank spokesperson said the bank has a zero tolerance towards sexual harassment. The bank has constituted an internal complaints committee of 41 members who have been appointed from various regions across the country. An ICICI Bank spokesperson said, “We would definitely want the numbers to reduce significantly. However, reduction in reported numbers should not come at the cost of our colleagues under-reporting such incidences."

However, industry experts feel that companies are not doing enough to address the issue or build confidence among employees.

“I still believe that corporates are not doing enough as far as awareness is concerned. I think that last year, Tech Mahindra would have done significant interventions for creating awareness and reassuring women that they can complain without any fear. Complaints do not necessarily signify bad work culture but may point to a greater empowering environment for women," said Kedia.

Data show Tech Mahindra had 28 reported cases of sexual harassment at work in FY18, compared with none during the previous two years. Email queries to Tech Mahindra, TCS and the PSUs mentioned in the story remained unanswered till the time of filing the story.

Ashwin Ramarathinam contributed to this story.

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