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“I can’t see you properly. Come closer to the camera." Her boss’ demand over a one-on-one video call in June made her uncomfortable, but not enough to deny the request. The next week, he asked to switch on an extra light so he could see her properly. She did, feeling uneasy. The following Tuesday, he texted her at 10.15pm, asking what she was doing. She replied and switched off her phone. The Bengaluru-based firm was laying off people because coronavirus was hurting business, and she didn’t want to risk her job. He means well, she kept reminding herself. One Friday, he told her in a video call that he liked seeing her hair down. “That was it. He was never like this in the office, but that day I realized what was happening," says the 20-something IT professional. Post that call, she complained about workplace sexual harassment to HR. When nothing happened, she quit.

When people across the country moved out of their physical workspaces in March to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus and started working from home, they didn’t realize they were inviting supervisors, colleagues, clients and customers into their living rooms or bedrooms. Though the camera and internet helped build an informal work environment, which some argue has improved productivity, it has also brought home an old disease that hasn’t been cured yet: workplace sexual harassment.

Last year, India Inc reported a 14% increase in sexual harassment complaints compared to 2018, shows a study by ComplyKaro Services, a platform that specializes in workplace sexual harassment compliance. This year, it’s going to be a challenge to map cases since subtler forms of sexual harassment are on the rise in the work-from-home setup and many people don’t even realize they are facing it, say experts. WhatsApp queries about what one is wearing or doing have replaced long stares in the office, unwelcome calls or messages at odd hours have become more common, and sexist remarks have moved to the virtual workspace.

Since the nationwide lockdown started five months ago, Cohere Consultants, a pan-India practice working on sexual harassment and diversity and inclusion in the workplace, has seen a 20% rise in complaints. “To be very honest, we had anticipated a drop in cases with the lockdown and the shift to the alternative workplace," says Chennai-based lawyer Shivakami Ravichandran. She’s the south India practice head for Cohere, which was handling on average 10-12 sexual harassment cases a month before the lockdown, as external members to internal committees for companies.

In March-April, Ravichandran says, they saw cases such as pressure on women colleagues to turn on video after office hours, taking screenshots during video calls without permission and circulating them on social media, use of sexist or abusive language in con-calls and cyber stalking. As it became clearer that work-from-home is no temporary measure, some started misusing colleagues’ sympathies. Ravichandran shares a recent case of a Kerala-based man who made late-night calls to female colleagues, saying he was feeling lonely. “Now, it is normal for his colleagues to feel sympathetic but as information emerged, it was seen that he was only calling his women colleagues," she explains. The catalyst for the complaint was that he was sending social media friend requests and retaliated at work if he didn’t receive a response. “He started spreading false rumours about the woman’s character," says Ravichandran.

Another facet is the increase in complaints related to sex-based discrimination. Some supervisors have told women colleagues to quit and attend to their “real jobs" of attending household chores or childcare. Sexual harassment, says Ravichandran, is the outcome of a discriminatory or privileged, often patriarchal, mindset. “In one case, where a male reportee told his manager he would be five minutes late on the video call because his child had to start his online classes, the manager told him once he joined the team call, “Biwi ke pallu se nikal aaye?"

In many sexual harassment complaints, the alleged perpetrators are in a position of power, says lawyer Masooma Ranalvi, who facilitates sensitization workshops on sexual harassment. “The bigger problem is that people don’t realize what they doing is wrong, because for most harassment means physical touch," she says.

The new workplace might be at home but the Prevention of Sexual Harassment (PoSH) Act of 2013, which clearly defines sexual harassment as inappropriate physical as well as gestural and verbal behaviour, applies in the virtual office as well. “The definition of the Act is broad and inclusive enough to cover work-from-home as well. Even before the pandemic, we have dealt with many cases where the misbehaviour has occurred at an office party or in a company car. The law in India recognizes that these situations/places are an extension of the workplace," explains Ravichandran.

Perhaps the biggest issue right now is that many people don’t even realize that what they are suffering is sexual harassment. “A lot of women reach out for advice on whether their cases can be of sexual harassment in the workplace because they are not in their office. Harassment is still seen as a physical thing, which is not the case," says Anupamaa V., legal consultant and chief trainer at Upceed Consulting Services, which works for PoSH compliance.

Women do hesitate to come forward because they doubt they will be believed, especially since incidents occur over Zoom, WhatsApp or Teams calls. “The problem is always one of proving your case to HR, and virtually it becomes more difficult," adds Ranalvi.

As a solution, a starting point, say experts, would be for companies to change their sexual harassment policies and clearly include the term “work from home". They need to inform employees of procedures to redress cases arising out of working remotely. “HR really needs to step up, and not brush the problems under the carpet, otherwise it can create a large-scale problem," says Anupamaa.

Companies need to show employees where to draw the line between work and private life, and establish their own liability as employers. Sensitization workshops should start up again to help people navigate this uncharted territory. Given that the pandemic has pushed the issue of sexual harassment down the priority list of companies, which are more focused on surviving the crisis, government intervention is essential. Anupamaa explains: “The government needs to be more active at the level of enforcement. It is the obligation of companies to take care of their employees, especially right now when they are isolated and don’t know what to do."

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