On Sexual Harassment at Workplace
This paper on the Bill on Sexual Harrassment at Workplace was presented by Bhuvana,National Secretary of All India Central Council Of Trade Unions (AICCTU) in the International Labor Organization's workshop on Sexual Harrassment at Workplaces held on 29, 30 October, 2012 in Bangalore.
There are quantitative and qualitative changes in the composition of working class in the country. More and more women join this army and new sections of women are brought into the production process. We can put the women workers in the country in to three broad categories.
1. Permanent women work force of the government and public sector indeed played an important role in Indian Trade union movement. Their role now is gradually diminishing as majority of them were sent out through VRS and as there is ban on recruitment. We can say this is a section which belongs to the past.
2. It is an oft‐repeated statement and truth that women are drawn into the work force in large numbers in the era of globalization. In India globalization has brought women more into the unorganized sector and 94% of women work force is in unorganized sector. In the range from rag pickers to IT employees, there are many sections of women workers who are not noticed, not counted and are not recognized as workers and do not fall under any legislation that provides for any security. Working in high paying jobs in the sunrise industries to the lowest paid work in agriculture through domestic helps and sweatshops such as diamond cutting units, garment units, electronic goods manufacturing, retail industry etc., all these women workers, who are faceless, together contribute to the GDP of the country and the growth mantra works for the corporate world and for the neo‐rich only out of the sweat of these women workers. They are working in 21st century technology under 19th century working conditions.
3. The central and state governments are the largest employers of contract workers, workers for consolidated pay and honorarium. Government health and education sectors that are meant to cater to the needs of the vast majority of the poor in the country particularly in the rural areas, are run by placing the whole burden on paramedical workers and Para‐teachers who are predominantly women. Housekeeping in the government public sector is completely outsourced and the women employed here perform not only housekeeping jobs but also other work in the offices. These women workers are government employees but their working conditions are such that they are unorganized workers. The conditions of these women workers also mirror the callousness of the government to health and education of the country’s majority. orking conditions of the women workers particularly of the unorganized are built in such a way that it is difficult for them to get unionized and put up a stiff resistance against the policies of the government that are responsible for their conditions. But the women workers do not subject themselves to such exploitative conditions unquestioningly. ASHA, anganwadi, noon meal workers are already on the war path. Women workers of Nokia and Foxconn repeatedly take up struggles against the MNCs. Voices of dissent can be heard from the women workers in IT industry.
The sexual harassment at workplace
There were a few high profile cases like Rupam, an IAS officer – Gill, Ruchika, a sports woman (a girl?) – Rathore. These two cases showcased the audacity of those with less power or powerless who fought against the powerful, backed not only by their positions but also by strong patriarchal attitude in the system. In these cases conviction was not that convincing. Gill’s conviction of 3 months imprisonment was reduced to 3 years probation. Rathore had to face 3 years jail sentence.
In 2006 Sushmita Chakravarthi who was an army officer committed suicide which was a result of sexual harassment in work place. In 2007 Megha Razdan, another army officer, was found shot dead. Later it was established that she was subjected to SHW. Anjali Gupta of AirForce who raised the issue of being subjected to sexual harassment was court martialled and later suspended for claiming false travelling allowance of Rs.1080. India has 1.1 million strong army which has only 1000 women.
In 2010, Valli, a police personnel of Erode, Tamilnadu, who approached HC Chennai on this issue. HC yet to come out with a decision.
So this is the status of affairs vis-a-vis women in high profile jobs. These women are law enforcing authorities and they themselves face the problem of sexual harassment in work place.
There is another type of high profile jobs. IT, hospitality, air travel, tourism, entertainment. These jobs give the women enough limelight. But at what cost? Can they ever raise any complaint on such issues without risking their employment?
The millions of unorganized workers who are not protected as workers are the most vulnerable. We talk about feminization of labor and it is characterized by famine of dignity. Some sections of them are not even considered as workers. Sumangali scheme in TN, (this needs a separate section to be explained) where 100% production is carried out by trainees are not considered as workers. They are trainees! They have no legal protection. Their working conditions are miserable and their factories are prisons. In Tamlinadu, AICCTU and other TUs took up their issues as a result of which the TN government passed a Bill (LA Bill 47/2008) which protects the trainees of the State, and it is waiting for presidential assent for the past four years. In TN governments changed, and in Delhi Presidents changed but this bill is awaiting clearance.
SC directives on Visaka of Medha Kotwal cases are addressing the issues of organized sector women whose number is comparatively lesser. They do not deal with SHW on sumangali workers or other unorganized workers. The women workforce mainly comprises of the unorganized workers whose working conditions are already vulnerable. Patriarchal excesses in built in their employment.
Coming to women in govt sector and PSU’s unionization, their participation, their economic condition play a role in protecting them to a certain extent. Women there do not shy away from raising the issue also. It is just because unionization and participation in union activities.
AIPWA filed a writ in Chennai HC in 2001 asking the court to direct the govt to implement Visaka uidelines. The court directed the govt to do the needful.
In beedi sector, AICCTU organized a campaign demanding declaration of beedi shops the point at which beedi leaves and tobacco are distributed for the workers. There was an inspection in Ganesh Beedi in such centers and the men in those points were warned against any such offending behavior.
In Valli’s case, AICCTU sent a memorandum to the DGP and SWC. The SWC sent the memorandum to ERD police and a committee on the issue was formed at the district level. We raised the issue of SH in police dept, with Valli as an immediate context. But the whole thing was reduced to an issue of a single district.
UGC stipultes for the set up of committees in universities for GSCASH. One such is active in JNU. In mysore University, the committee dealt with 33 cases from 2006 to 2011. (Rupa, SAMATHA).
Some questions to be addressed
Policies of the government in the name of building the investors’ confidence care nothing for the rights and dignity of the workers, both male and female. Unionisation and collective bargaining are curtailed and the government, the administration, and the, management join together in doing this. Unionization is one very basic right and necessity that would build workers’ confidence. So, changes are necessary at the policy level to protect the rights of unionization and collective bargaining. This will go a long way in ensuring a dignified and decent work environment on many counts including protection of women workers against SHW.
The central and state governments do not have any records about the number of women workers of various sectors in the country. Enumeration of women workers in the country will be the first and foremost task that is to be taken up to usher in any meaningful measure in the interests of women workers. Without ascertaining the number of women workers in various sectors it is not possible to formulate any policy or action plan to protect their rights or ensure decent and dignified working environment.
There are NSSO statistics. But does it give a comprehensive picture of the unorganized and private sector women? Companies have to file the position of workers’ strength every year. Are they doing? What is the accessibility to such information? We filed a RTI to know number women workers in the factories in Sriperumbudur. We are yet to get the information. We wanted to know the number of companies and number of various categories of workers in the area which is an industrial corridor in Chennai, TN, like Gurgaon and Manesar. No details we received so far. What ever details the inspector of factories gave does not commensurate with reality. They have not shown the thousands of women workers in Nokia and Foxconn in the information they provided.
Role of governments: The governments both at the center and states do not have any records about the cases or measures taken on this issue. The recent SC judgment of a 3-judge bench has come out with the status of implementation of Visaka guidelines. It is a sordid picture.
In power loom there is a system of bonded labor of course not declared as such. There is system of rice and pulses, which means, when a male worker fails to repay the loan he took from somebody, that somebody, generally a local bigwig, comes to the house of the worker and tells the woman in the house that he will buy rice and pulses, and he will visit her anytime he wants. There was a murder in 2010. A CITU leader was killed in a case where a video was circulated with a woman whose mother was not able to repay the loan and the girl was subjected to sexual abuse. This case was brought into open and in the process he was killed. But what happens after that? Are there any serious attempts on the part of the govt to take steps to curb such practice? Why should not the govt take suo moto steps?
It is the duty of the government to enroll members for the welfare boards. As the governments are not serious enough unions are doing it. But there are unnecessary hurdles now in the name of streamlining the functioning of boards that workers are asked to come for registration and claims in person. Is this possible? They have to forego a day’s salary. This is actually a method found out by the government to restrict the benefits of welfare boards. If this is the attitude of the government in dealing with its own welfare boards, with its own promises for the unorganized workers what we can expect from the governments on this issue? We have to wait and see what happens to the recent directives of the SC.
Role of employers: Employers are interested only in extracting cheap labor from them and seldom are they concerned about the dignity of women workers. As shown earlier unionization plays a role in preventing SHW. Unionization is right won under British rule. Government of the free country should ensure this. Labor offices should not be compromising. It can only conciliate. Can you cite an instance of union of garment workers is allowed to be formed? If formed to function? Right from sexual harassment they have to undergo numerous kinds of harassment at the hands of the employers. Why do they bring police when there is dispute between the management and the workers? Is it a law and order problem? It is a labor issue to be sorted out by the labor department. There should be no police interference in cases of workers’ struggles. The managements do not have an option but to get accustomed to the scenario where protests of the workers will be the order of the day. Workers are the creators of wealth in the society and they do not have to be at the mercy of managements or authorities for their dignified existence. Non-unionization is in built in implementation of neo-liberal policies. Doing away with unions is a byproduct. This is a challenge before the workers of the country.
Role of Trade unions
TUs too exist in this same environment. AICCTU consciously fight against gender discrimination. We are planning to go in for a campaign of issues such as enumeration of women workers, implementation of visaka directives, meaningful social security for women workers, and equal wages for equal work. We demand that a committee on the lines of Sachar Committee is to be formed to investigate into such aspects within a specific time frame.
What is the position of women issues in our priority list of TU activities? For some our TU leaders this issue has to be “decent enough” to be addressed. Nurses came to the streets recently. They raised the issue of better wages. But any further question came up after that? The TU movement in TN did not make any follow up on this score.
Loopholes in the bill passed recently in lok sabha
Definition of SHW must be more comprehensive. Sec 14 on penalization in case of false complaint, Sec 16 - no announcement or publication about the action taken, 17 – punishment for violation. 18 aggrieved party can appeal. These provisions will be used against the victim. Penalising clause has to be removed and the other two sections must provide for dissemination of judgment for the purposes of educating and awareness building. Need for monitoring mechanism in not adequately addressed in the bill. Spelling out categorical punishment for the crime, Ensuring punishment for the perpetrator are some grey areas in the bill. Penalisation for violation is to be more stringent. Rs.50,000 fine is nothing in terms of punishment. It should be in terms of imprisonment.
As we have seen already Visaka directives are implemented only in their breach. Even in some instances where there are attempts to implement, it becomes a herculean task for those who are attempting to implement them. During the enquiry the question of character of the victim is raised invariably. In one of the cases dealt with by the Committee in Mysore University, the accused, unfortunately a professor, produced witnesses who said the victim is of loose character. There are judges who are biased against the victim and pass unwarranted comments and we have come across many such comments from authorities and even from the ministers. So, there must be some provision in the Bill or any action plan that is put forth for that matter against this. Raising the question of character of victim must be made punishable.
The Labor commissioner is said to be the implementing authority. What would happen if the Labor Commissioner himself needs to be sensitized on gender issues? The labor commissioner already is burdened with many other tasks. Would this additional charge help the aggrieved women in any way? The implementing authority should be body of individuals which should comprise along with labor department officials, a representative of TU, a representative of a women organization and it should be headed by a woman. Whenever a complaint comes up in any part of the state it should be reported to this body about the steps taken. This will ensure that the case does die not away in the place in which originated. Thus this body should also serve as a monitoring body.
To make the approach toward SHW proactive, awareness campaigns, workshops, during working hours and in Sundays, holidays in living areas should be organized. Ensuring participation of women workers in the implementing process would also help to a great extent in controlling SHW. We have to develop ways and means to ensure this.
To Conclude, we cannot just dismiss a bill just because it has certain clauses contrary to the original purpose. Any bill for that matter does not come into being out of benevolence of the powers that be. Rather they are forced to enact a law or draft a bill though as a palliative. It is a result of years of struggle waged by women in the country. SHW Bill is also one such bill. It may have loopholes. But this did not come up without the struggles of women’s movement and trade union movement in the country. We have to intensify the struggle to make it more meaningful and more protective. After all this is the only bill that has some provisions for the unorganized workers in terms of SHW. Let us make it workable with all our efforts.
National Secratary, AICCTU
National Secratary, AICCTU