Saturday, November 30, 2013

Workplace Sexual Harassment Law: Challenges for the Unorganised Sector

“Do you have an Internal Complaints Committee at your workplace as per the new law?”

(L-R) IG Vigilance Seema Agarwal, Vahidha Nizam of AITUC, 
Advocate Sheila Jayaprakash, Prajnya Founder Dr Swarna Rajagopalan
and K Santhakumari of the Tamil Nadu Federation of Women Lawyers
at the training session held by Prajnya and TNFWA on 28/11/13
It’s a question doing the rounds these days, whether on the news or the social media, or even conversations among acquaintances. Recent cases of sexual harassment or assault by employers on their employees have created a buzz around a recently passed law – The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 – more commonly known as the Workplace Sexual Harassment Act. Awareness is good, but a lot of the debate has centred only around companies and established organisations. What about the challenges faced in implementing the law in the unorganised sector? What about domestic workers and construction labourers and agricultural workers? Where do they sit in this scheme of things?

According to the new law, any organisation with 10 or more employees is mandated to form a committee to address complaints of harassment. For all other cases, every district is mandated to form a ‘Local Complaints Committee’ to address the complaints. In the unorganised sector, the main challenge is the nature of the sector itself.

“There are several problems with this model,” says Advocate Sheila Jayaprakash. “The law talks about conducting an inquiry in keeping with the ‘service rules’. What are the service rules in the unorganised sector? This is one aspect that hasn’t been addressed. These rules must be framed for the law to be effective. And as it stands now, I feel it has let down the unorganised sector and domestic workers,” she says.

Some believe that the very inclusion of the unorganised sector in the purview of the law is something to be happy about. “The Draft Bill had exclusive excluded domestic workers, but the final Act has included them. It’s a start, especially when 93% of our workforce is in the unorganised sector,” says Vahidha Nizam of the AITUC. “But there are other apprehensions,” she adds.

“Imagine a beedi worker complaining against her employer to the local complaints committee. The law says a complainant can seek a transfer: tell me, where does she get a transfer to? And since the pool of employers in the sector is small and well knit, the possibility of her getting another job is also slim. The job security factor is a huge deterrent for women from filing complaints, especially in the unorganised sector,” says Vahidha.

Another issue that many have raised is with the provision for ‘conciliation’ or ‘settlement’. “This helps the offender, not the victim,” says Sheila Jayaprakash. “This means a lot of pressure will be put on the victim.”

One of the most contentious provisions of the Act that several people have spoken out against is the punishment in case of ‘false or malicious complaints’. “This is a sure deterrent for aggrieved women to speak out,” says K Santhakumari of the Tamil Nadu Women Lawyers’ Federation. “In the least, we want the word ‘false’ to be removed from this provision. What if a woman is unable to prove her case? How is it fair to punish her?”

But even as the new law comes into force, the biggest challenge in the unorganised sector remains creating awareness and changing the mindset of the society at large. As Vahidha says, “We need a comprehensive campaign targeting both men and women in order to tackle the issue at its root. Sexual harassment deters the economic emancipation of women, and unless there is a change in mindset, laws cannot help much.”

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