In the wake of the mishandling of the Pachauri case and Arun Jaitley’s revealing remarks to Maneka Gandhi’s request for greater transparency, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (SHWW) Act has recently come under close scrutiny. In the sixteen years since the passing down of the Vishakha Guidelines and the two years since the enactment of SHWW, little meaningful progress has been made in making workplaces safer and less hostile towards women.
This past week, Sakhi, a women’s resource centre based in Thiruvananthapuram, organised training for the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and Local Complaints Committee (LCC) members in Kerala. The SHWW Act sets up the two for filing sexual harassment complaints; ICCs are formed within businesses with ten or more employees while LCCs deal with complaints from the unorganised sector as well as from those businesses with less than ten employees.
While some companies and districts in Kerala have formed ICCs and LCCs, there has been much confusion in jurisdictions, procedures, and distinctions between ICCs and LCCs, arising particularly with the question of how to deal with the unorganised sector. While ICCs have direct jurisdiction over offenders and can easily implement corrective action, LCCs have a much harder time as the ‘workplace’ for unorganised workers is often more nebulous than the four walls of an office or the inside of an official car. Attendees at the session reported that all LCCs in the state of Kerala, and much of India, are non-functioning, a problem that rests on the perceived lack of urgency and that serves as a signal of the problematic structure of LCCs themselves.
On the ground, very few workers are even aware of the SHWW Act, resulting in the low number of complaints filed. Training Officer Madhu Mehra stressed the importance of preventive work to the success of this Act. Mehra emphasised the need for training sessions and workshops to be organised not only for all employees but for ICC and LCC members themselves. Safe work environments for women cannot be created otherwise, she stated. However, very little preventive work can be carried out without access to funds and current ICC/LCC members have found it difficult to obtain funds from companies and the government despite provisions in the law.
The problems with the SHWW Act, however, start well before issues with implementation. Hastily drafted, there are significant oversights and incomplete portions in the law. It is also a non-inclusive act – men can be subjected to sexual harassment at the workplace as well, as well as transgender and transsexual people. Additionally, the remunerative amount set for the attendance of an external member – often a respected member of women’s groups – is set at a humiliatingly low Rs. 200 per meeting, making it difficult to find experts who will commit time and energy to implement this act.
Perhaps the Act’s most egregious oversight is the lack of an appellate authority that can handle these administrative proceedings, leading to several cases where matters are handled within the company but respondents who wish to appeal take cases to the High Court. Additionally, though the Act was passed with the help of the Ministry of Women and Child Development, the implementation of the Act falls under the responsibilities of the Labour Department. As such, there is no strong ownership of the Act. These confusions in implementation further muddy and degrade the powers of ICCs and LCCs, turning women away from reporting cases of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The most unfortunate is the wasted potential of the law. Under its provisions, LCCs and ICCs have the opportunity and ability to educate the Indian workforce, to create awareness and a safer workplace for women all over the country. In doing so, the act not only benefits the everyday woman worker, it benefits the employer and the greater economy as well by increasing productivity and tapping into a vast source of human capital.
A study conducted for the International Labour Organization found that sexual harassment and hostile work environments were the most common reason women exited the workforce in Uttar Pradesh. While state-specific, the findings doubtlessly apply to many other Indian states which still fail to provide adequate sanitation and protection services for its female workers. In turn, this represents a significant loss of labor and human capital to the Indian economy.
It is interesting to note the gender profiles of training sessions such as the one held in Thiruvananthapuram this past week. Of the 68 attendees, only 10 percent of the attendees were male. In striking contrast, 95 percent of senior corporate leadership posts in India, the positions that are integral to the proper implementation of the SHWW Act, are held by males. This signals the deeply dichotomous state of women’s rights in India. Until men begin to understand the very real issues facing women in the workplace and the economic consequences of failing to provide redress, the road ahead will remain extremely difficult and a drain on the average, everyday working woman. There needs to be a greater dialogue, not only between men and women in India but between men and women the world over – between individuals of different races, creeds, castes, backgrounds.
This isn’t ‘just a women’s issue’; it’s a labor issue. Acts like the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act have created opportunities to build these spaces, to jumpstart these dialogues, to provide redress for victims. It’s a shame to watch such opportunities so openly go to waste.