Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Compliance with the Law on Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Sexual harassment of women at the workplace is an issue that has been of serious concern and talked about in the past few months in the professional world. With a significant number of women entering the work place in the organized sector, sexual harassment cases are increasingly coming to light now. Organizations need to foster a work culture that respects the dignity of every individual employee - female or male, that comes to work, and hence there is an urgent need to ensure not only redress but prevention of any kind of sexual harassment at the workplace.

CAP: Do you think numbers are correctly reported?
“Numbers by whom, of who?  In the past one and half year, many women especially young girls are increasingly coming forth to complain. The fact though is that these cases are not reported by the concerned organizations in their annual report or elsewhere, there is under-reporting.”

CAP: Are men ever harassed?
Harish: “Yes, they are. The power dynamics in a workplace are different from those say in a domestic sphere (at homes – where usually men have more patriarchal privileges and women are in a secondary position, in workplace situation there are instances (many) where the women may be in a senior position to their male colleagues and can harass men, also misuse the law on sexual harassment. Therefore, many corporate have formulated their policies on anti-sexual harassment as gender-neutral policies… though their emphasis may be on sexual harassment of women employees and they argue that they are complying with the existing legislation, they want their policies to be broader and inclusive of men”

A street play by MAVA

Sixteen years after the Supreme Court of India gave directions to all employers on addressing sexual harassment by way of Guidelines (known popularly as the Vishakha Guidelines), the Government of India enacted a special law on sexual harassment at workplace. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, which came into force on December 9, 2013, has clearly defined sexual harassment and laid down specific steps organizations should take when dealing with sexual harassment. The Act is applicable to all establishments in the formal and the informal sector  including schools, colleges, universities and NGOs.

As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition & Redressal) Act, 2013, all business organizations employing 10 or more than 10 employees, are mandatorily required to:

1. Formulate the Company’s Policy on Prohibition, Prevention and Redressal of  Harassment at  the workplace. Once formulated, this should be disseminated to all employees at all locations.

2. Constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) as per the new law. The ICC must have an external member (he or she may be a social worker from an NGO committed to the cause of women, or familiar with issues relating to sexual harassment).

The ICC must prepare an annual report (for the financial year end, which currently would be March 2016 ) which shall have the following summarized details:
  •         number of complaints of sexual harassment received in the year.
  •         number of complaints disposed off during the year.
  •         number of cases pending for more that 90  days.
  •         number of workshops or awareness programs conducted against sexual harassment
  •         nature of action taken by the employer. 

This information has to be included by the employer in the annual report of the organization as per Section 22 of the Act. 

3. Display notices in conspicuous places (like the canteen area) frequented by many staff at all its locations regarding the constitution of Internal Complaints Committee. Names and contact details of all members of the ICC, penal consequences of sexual harassment violations must be included in the notices.

4. Organize workshops and awareness programs at regular intervals to sensitize all employees, at all locations, about the provisions of the law and to promoting gender sensitivity.

 5. Organize Orientation Programs, Seminars, Capacity and Skill-Building Programs for all members of the ICC.

Harish Sadani

CAP: Do you think this law has been reasonably well implemented ?
Harish: “No. The implementation is not seen in many places across the country. When the law had just come into force in December 2013, there was heightened curiosity among private business organizations along with anxiety on the implementation as the topic of sexual harassment was not what they were comfortable dealing with. In the past few months, there has again been a lull and many organizations have not taken the Act seriously. One of the major reasons being the lack of monitoring mechanism from the Government (the Ministry of Women and Child Development) still not in place. As a result, the enforcement of the law still remains poor. Prior to the law, there were Guidelines by the Supreme Court, which many concerned organizations never took seriously. Even with the new law, the constitution of the Internal Complaints Committee in many places is not done as per the manner specified under the law, the gender sensitivity workshops are not held periodically, a significant number of employees are not even aware about the law, though it is more than two years old!

The law is applicable to not only business organizations but to even NGOs and educational institutions, which include not just colleges but also schools. Sadly speaking, I have not come across any Principal of a school adhering to the basic compliance of forming an Internal Complaints Committee. It has been reported nationally that one of the reasons for girls dropping out from schools has been their sexual abuse and if the law is implemented by sensitive and committed Principals of schools, this problem would be dealt with effectively.”

While there has been some deliberation on the subject of sexual harassment and the new legislation among business organizations across the country in the past one year, there needs a concerted effort by all organizations to ensure the effective implementation of the law. Due compliance with the law on the subject would be a key step in creating and sustaining a healthy work environment.

CAP: Do you see any changes in trends from earlier times?
Harish: There are fewer organizations (largely multinational) that are following the law in spirit. The only positive trend that is visible is that a significant number of young women professionals are coming forward to complain and assert their rights. In the last one year, we have seen examples of girls (two) who were law interns who have mustered courage to lodge complaint against senior Supreme Court judges, women complaining against journalists, the CEO of a notable organization working internationally on Climate Change has been charged by a young executive (which emboldened another woman employee of the same organization to come ahead and complain against the CEO subsequently. I see that women, who are aware about the legislation are effectively using the redressal mechanism under the law to get due justice, despite the law not been followed by organizations the way it should have been.

CAP: Any two things an organisation can do to ensure a better culture?
Harish: “The law, apart from highlighting the redressal mechanism aspect, also emphasizes the Prevention part. Even if the organization arranges at least one gender sensitization workshop (with a focus on the new law) covering all employees at all locations and then follow it up with intermittent programs that would elicit their participation in promoting an enabling dignified work environment, it would be a significant step. By encouraging, the employees to have engaging conversations on the subject would signal the organization’s accountability and sincerity towards compliance of the law in spirit.”

The second thing, which the organization can do, is to ensure that the Internal Complaints Committee, if constituted, is active and visible to all employees. That will go a long way in reassuring all women employees that the organization has a zero tolerance approach on the issue of sexual harassment and it will take all steps to ensure speedier redressal in case of any incident of sexual harassment that may happen in future.”

CAP: What has been MAVA's role with regard to the law? How effective has it been? Any challenges and how do you overcome them?
Harish: MAVA has been conducting series of workshops and trainings on the subject for business organizations, Universities and Colleges and NGOs across the country. We are also represented as External Member on a few companies and colleges. The implementation of law is slow and needs to be accelerated. Through continuous process of engagement with the key stakeholders – the organization, its top management, employees and representatives of civil society, we will be able to make a difference.”

To know more about our work contact connect@capindia.in 

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