By Shruti Sonal:
Women and Child Development minister Maneka Gandhi released a handbook on December 7 providing user-friendly information about sexual harassment at workplaces. In order to tackle the crime that remains one of the most underreported in India, she suggested that all companies ought to indicate in their annual reports details like how many complaints they received and how many are being dealt with. However, Arun Jaitley, Minister for Finance and Corporate Affairs turned down Gandhi’s request as industry representatives were against “enhanced disclosures under the Companies Act, 2013 and adding to these may not be desirable.”
In a strongly worded reply, Gandhi said that making it mandatory for companies to establish an Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) to address cases is key to effective implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) 2013 in its true spirit. The act, which came into effect from 9th December 2013 requires all employers to set up ICC with powers similar to that first Civil Court and complete enquiry within 90 days. The Act, which also covers students in schools and colleges as well as patients in hospitals, employers and local authorities will have to set up in ICCs to investigate all complaints. It also states that employers who fail to comply will be levied a fine of 50,000 rupees.
However, in the absence of provisions that make it binding for the companies to reveal their complaint records, the non-compliance rate is high. Gandhi’s suggestions assume prime importance if one looks at a recent report published by FICCI in November 2015. The report, compiled after a survey conducted by the same organisation, revealed that 36% of Indian companies and 25% MNCs are not compliant with the Sexual Harassment Act. 35% of the companies were unaware of the penal consequences stated by the Act for not constituting ICCs.
Even as the number of cases reported of sexual harassment at workplace doubled from 2013 to 2014, the companies remain reluctant to reveal records as it maligns their image. Moreover, they believe that the existence of such a committee might create friction between workers. However, one must remember that the prime concern of employers must be the safety of their employees. The Finance and Corporate Affairs ministry in this situation, instead of being dismissive, should ensure the establishment of a central mechanism to collect the data and help in conviction. An Internal Complaint Committee often proves to be the first step in reporting the incident. Women (and even male victims) often find it hard to directly approach the police due to confidentiality clauses.
Thus, strengthening the ICC is the joint responsibility of both the Women and Child Development Ministry and Finance Ministry. It is a basic prerequisite for the effective implementation of the Sexual Harassment Act and a step towards the realisation of gender equality. The sense of security at the workplace is every woman’s right and the backbone of economic empowerment and an inclusive model of growth.