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Arun Jaitley, Here’s Why Committees To Tackle Sexual Harassment Won’t ‘Burden’ Companies

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By Mayurpankhi Choudhary:

Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister Arun Jaitley has recently turned down Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi’s suggestion to make it mandatory for companies to reveal whether they have an Internal Complaints Committee to adhere to sexual harassment complaints of women employees. Who knew these two sectors could be in incongruent with one other.

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Let’s not be too quick to condemn Mr Jaitley and try to understand the basis of this refusal. Jaitley rejected Gandhi’s plea on the ground that industry representatives were against “enhanced disclosures under the Companies Act, 2013 and adding to these may not be desirable.”

What is the Companies Act of 2013? And what does ‘enhanced disclosure’ even mean? A simple Google search will tell you that the Companies Act, 2013 is an Act of the Parliament of India, directed to regulate incorporation of a company, responsibilities of a company, directors, and dissolution of a company. Now if this is a regulatory document which outlines the responsibilities of the companies, maybe the prime concern should not be if it is a burden to the corporations, but to ensure that the companies fulfil their responsibilities.

In simplified words, Mr Jaitley’s basic argument was that burdening the industries with an additional responsibility would be undesirable. This is hardly an adequate explanation for refusing the plea to set up the ICC. The way I see it, everybody’s a winner if the ICC is implemented. Gandhi’s appeal was merely that the companies disclose in the Board/Director’s report if the companies have actually constituted the Internal Complaints committee. It’s a simple yes or no question and the establishment of an ICC shouldn’t ideally ‘burden’ the company. It should ensure the exact opposite.

There have been approximately 526 reported cases of sexual harassment related to work in 2014, where 57 cases were reported at office premises and 469 cases were registered at other places. There is no legal way for the Government to acquire these records. The ICC would certainly help the Government ascertain the intensity of workplace harassment and formulate policies to counter it. We must also remember that 526 were the reported cases. The victims’ initial inhibitions coupled with the companies’ fear of tarnishing their reputation usually deters filing of any complaint at all. This is where the ICC would come in. A women majority committee for effective redressal of grievances would provide the necessary course of action for the companies and assure the women employees that they work in a safe working environment under the umbrella of a responsible employer which quite frankly, isn’t a burden. It is a requisite obligation.

Private companies which rest on profit and enhanced performance need to have a foundation of a good stable workforce, where every employee, irrespective of their gender can work in a fear free environment. But Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, The Associated Chambers of Commerce of India, PHD Chamber of Commerce and Industry and Confederation of Indian Industry have been less than enthusiastic about implementing these measures. Many firms have actually stated that a cell like the ICC “will lead women employees to create nuisance.”

I wouldn’t exactly call a sexual harassment victim a nuisance. It’s politically incorrect at best and morally wrong at worst. Majority of women aren’t exactly rabble-rousers. Most of them wouldn’t enjoy being labelled “a victim of sexual harassment” because of the social stigma it carries with it. And if false accusations from women is what the firms fear, then instituting the ICC becomes even more imperative. An unbiased committee employing a systematic line of inquiry is what the firms need to deal with such sensitive issues. The ICC will also help the corporations fulfil their Corporate Social Responsibility of promoting gender equality and empowering women which is a part of the Companies Act 2013 that Mr Jaitley was so eager to cite to refrain from instituting the ICC in the first place.

Gender equality is goal 5 in the list of 17 Goals for Sustainable Development forwarded by United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015. With Prime Minister Narendra Modi pushing for the successful realisation of these goals, it seems rather ironical that measures to ensure a safe working environment for women is being undermined back home without a satisfactory explanation.

The Woman and Child Development (WCD) Minister has now asked Jaitley to reconsider his decision in view of effective implementation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal), 2013 “in its true spirit”. If implementing articles from the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2013 proves to be a burden to the companies under the Companies Act of 2013, does this mean that the two acts are conflicting to one another? If not, perhaps the Finance and Corporate Affairs Minister should reconsider his decision or at least provide a justifiable reason and not industrial jargon that takes a lifetime to understand.

Although the inherent nature of membership of the committee is acceptable, the nature of complaints it accepts is not. The committee constructed under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act is not gender neutral. This means that men cannot file a complaint for sexual harassment. Also, ‘Sexual harassment’, the term is by default synonymous with ‘sexual harassment of women’. Sexual harassment of men remains a tabooed subject, but a reality in our country as cited by Pavan Choudary, an expert on workplace ethics.

Also there needs to be a clear delineation of what may be termed as “sexual harassment”, to avoid ambiguity regarding the issue and deter injustice to the victim and the alleged offender. For example, Section 3 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act defines sexual harassment as something that is an ‘implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status’ or ‘interferes with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for her’. But this abstruse definition of sexual harassment can be misconstrued by certain female employees for their benefit.

However, the issue of sexual harassment of women cannot be belittled; neither should the focus shift from women’s security to men. Despite its inherent flaws, I would still vouch for the implementation of Gandhi’s proposal to ensure a safe working environment for female employees. Sexual harassment at the workplace does still largely remain a women-centered issue and a woman presiding officer with a women majority committee devoted to the cause of women would ensure sensitive approach towards the victim who in the majority of cases likely to be a woman. But perhaps necessary reforms can be made to the committee at hand to accept complaints in a gender neutral manner in order to guarantee Gender Equality in its true spirit.

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