A year after she complained against her higher-ups at a garment factory outside Chennai, for repeated harassment, Manimala (name changed) is still waiting for authorities to act on her complaint. Including her, at least four workers have resigned from the factory following repeated harassment by a superior.
“Innuendos and attempts to grope junior workers and even slurs — it became too much to handle. When we complained to the management, they did not look into the complaint or even asked us about it, despite repeated requests. We were even forced to resign by the superior,” she says.
Manimala has now joined another company, but she still hopes that her former colleagues wake up to the issue of sexual harassment at workplace.
However, this is not an isolated incident and she is not alone.
In another reputed company in Chennai, a 40-year-old employee, Shanta, had complained to her bosses and the human resource department after her superior misbehaved with her. However, she was told to simply forget the issue and move on.
“I couldn’t get over the fact they chose to ignore my complaint. They said that the accused could not be called for enquiries since he held a very senior position,” she says.
Recently, a survey report released by Pink Ladder, a career enhancement ecosystem for women professionals, found that at least 30 per cent of the respondents from 80 companies across cities like Bengaluru, Chennai, Mumbai and New Delhi hesitated to complain about sexual harassment at workplace. This despite at least 80 per cent of them being aware of the related policies.
The adverse reactions to their complaints often make women wary of pursuing it, said T Jayanthi Rani, an advocate. “There is a social stigma and so many other aspects they think of and finally decline to come up with a complaint. Also how the system treats the complaint is another question,” she says.
POSH mandates action against harassment
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, or the POSH Act, aims to offer a safe, secure and enabling environment free from sexual harassment. The Act mandates the constitution of an internal complaints committee (ICC) in an organisation with 10 or more employees.
While a large number of companies have already set up ICCs, a good number of them do not have one, said women lawyers and activists, who stressed on the need of more awareness among women so that they would approach the relevant committees.
Saundarya Rajesh, founder and president of the AVTAR Group, which bats for diversity and inclusion, says that the effectiveness of the POSH Act lies in the creation of awareness and also engendering a sense of confidence in women to open up about their victimisation.
“More often, cases go unnoticed or not reported due to the lack of awareness among women about the existence of the committee at their workplaces,” she says, adding that the leadership must also instil among their female workforce the confidence to report any such practices by their peers and colleagues.
“The #MeToo phenomenon in which millions of women across the world revealed instances when they had faced sexual harassment was a shot in the arm for the POSH movement. Today, companies are mandated to compulsorily disclose sexual harassment cases in their annual reports,” she adds.
In 2017, the Ministry of Women and Child Development launched an online complaint management system called the ‘Sexual Harassment electronic Box’ or the ‘SHe-Box’.
It was an effort by the Government of India to provide a single window access to every woman, irrespective of her work status, whether working in organised or unorganised, private and public sector, including central/state ministries and districts, to facilitate the registration of complaints related to sexual harassment at workplace and for their speedy disposal. The complaints are routed to the social welfare departments that monitor their progress.
Sources from the Social Welfare Department of Tamil Nadu say that the biggest challenge while addressing the complaints are the absence of ICCs. “We have not been able to do much in those cases where there were no ICCs in the companies.”
Even the SHe-Box, which has been receiving complaints from across sectors, is yet to find acceptance as there has not been enough publicity. “We have been putting up posters across public places. It is a matter of time before it picks up. Yet, having ICCs alone will make them effective,” it adds.
Role played by ICCs
The ICCs in a company comprise a presiding member, an external member and its employees as members. The external member is someone familiar with issues related to sexual harassment.
Companies that have already constituted ICCs say that it has not been an easy task conducting enquiries.
For instance, take this case of a Chennai-based IT company, where the HR department has been actively conducting enquiries regarding harassment faced by its women employees.
“We have had cases that concluded with just one sitting. Then, there have been complaints that never reached a conclusion,” says a source in the HR department.
The source says that it is not fair for the company to not value the emotions of its employees. “From emotional outbursts to the detailed descriptions of the harassment, we have to look into every bit of the complaints. These are intrinsic to the nature of the issue and we cannot avoid them,” adds the source.
The LCCs at district level
In the absence of ICCs, the complaints have to be forwarded to local complaints committee (LCC) at the district level.
But, LCCs are far from being taken seriously, says Poonguzhali, an advocate. “It is like an additional task for the district officials. Since this is an Act that has been in place for about six years, it is a matter of time before the components of it are taken seriously,” she adds.
However, in their present form, ICCs and LCCs are not at all helpful for women, says Sujatha Mody, president, Garment and Fashion Workers Union.
“The government and the labour department must create a similar structure for every city or cluster of industries. They must also make an effort to ensure proper functioning of the local complaints committees at district level,” she says.
Mody adds that the LCC members should be nominated through a process by the courts. “The LCCs should go through a certain process and a strong leadership is required. They should be run on the directions of a high court with senior women lawyers with a standing in the society.”
However, for those in the unorganised sector, there is little redressal, says Dhanalakshmi Annadurai, an activist who works closely with the workers in the unorganised sector.
“The issue is stigmatising for them. Moreover, in the unorganised sector, a good number of women work under severe economic strain. They cannot afford to lose jobs and some of them don’t even know that they are being subjected to harassment,” she says.
Dhanalakshmi says that during every awareness meet, at least two or three women come forward and reveal that they have been subjected to harassment. “They say they were very scared and embarrassed to talk about it.”