The work women are generally engaged in is rendered as unimportant and overlooked in policymaking. Lack of reproductive autonomy and decades of neoliberal macroeconomic policies have “funnelled and segregated women into low wage and low-status job markets” while rendering invisible the incredible burden of women’s unpaid care and domestic work.
Their service as domestic workers, home-based workers, street vendors, agricultural workers and many others provide essential services which lack social security. The lack of socio-economic protections makes survival in the industry precarious.
Workplace safety is a women’s issue. The informal sector and its certain sub-sectors are highly gendered with a large number of female workers depending on them for their livelihood. According to the ILO, 58% of women globally are employed in the informal economy and in developing countries, the proportion goes up to 92%. Besides, women also contribute to 75% of all unpaid work.
Currently, there is Prevention of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, drafted on the lines of Vishakha Guidelines following a PIL filed in 1997. The SC along with Articles 14, 19 and 21 also invoked the Directive Principles, fundamental duties and international conventions like CEDAW (The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women) and the agenda of Beijing Platform for Action (an international convention that India had signed relating to the case) in the process of drawing out the guidelines for dealing with sexual harassment at workplace.
Addressing of VAW (Violence Against Women) at workplace coincides with the recognition of gendered forms of violence other than sexual assault, i.e. sexual harassment.
The high profile case of 1995 involving IAS officer Rupan Deol Bajaj and IPS officer KPS Gill is said to be the feminist signpost by creating the ground for sexual harassment provisions.
A senior officer molested Bajaj at an official dinner in front of her colleagues and other government officers. After being unable to pursue the case from Punjab, Bajaj approached the Supreme Court, and the accused was held guilty. It led to otherwise trivialised “eve-teasing” be re-inscribed as “derogation of women’s right to dignity”.
Before the inception of Vishakha guidelines and the POSH Act in the circumstance of not having any provisions to counter harassment at the workplace, the cases witnessed the practical application of the archaic “outraging of modesty” provision. IPC was the only statutory code that mentioned “modesty”. However, though it forms the crux of sections 354 and 509 of the IPC, the term hasn’t been defined in it.
Several judges, therefore, in the past, have associated workplace harassment with notions of “shame”, “chastity” and “inherent bashfulness of women”. This is where the existing provisions stand out. The earlier perceptions were unidirectionally seen in terms of a women’s chastity and modesty. But the guidelines sought to change the framework to view it as an assault on women’s right to a safe workplace and access to equal opportunity.
A safe working environment where a person can work with dignity is very much synonymous with the right to life and personal liberty as “dignity” and “safety” are essential prerequisites for anyone to live. While the laws and codes pertaining safety of workers have always been present, a gender-specific legal provision addressing violence against women at the workplace is relatively new.
The essential switch in the perception of laws points us towards the inherent masculinities in the workplace. The way men and women perceive each other in the private spheres, like within their families, is similar to the way they are treated by each other “outside”, like in a workplace.
Traditionally considered a male bastion, women continue to be seen as “outsiders”. Pay gaps are justified based on men orthodoxically being responsible for the financial needs of the family. This gendered family burden is reinforced at the workplace in the form of a contest between who can work under the circumstance of fewer leaves and longer hours.
Therefore, workplace violence is not always sexual
An example of this can be found in the sugarcane fields of Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra where women workers, due to prevailing superstitions against menstruations, end up getting a hysterectomy in order to not lose out on the daily wage.
The fear of losing out on wage drives these Bahujan migrant women to get this medical procedure done as a “permanent solution” for even minor gynaecological issues due to lack of basic awareness, sanitation and healthcare facilities. Women are, therefore, presented as a biologically lesser productive workforce due to their requirement of period and maternity leaves.
In the education sector, the stop-gap arrangement of the 1990s, the system of contract teachers have been turned into a large-scale ad hoc solution for recruiting teachers in the public school education system. This has happened even though no policy has mentioned hiring teachers on contract. Contractualisation helps employers evade from providing paid leaves to workers, especially women. As a result, an increasing number of women are employed as casual or contract workers and they do not appear on company records.
Since the pandemic hit, many informal workers have been forced to assume unprecedented risks to hold on to their livelihood without appropriate protection from contagion in the form of protective gear or access to healthcare.
Many have faced violence and stigma as alleged carriers of the virus. Others have seen their jobs and incomes disappear overnight, triggering a food crisis and the looming prospect of homelessness.
Women have faced increased GBV (Gender-Based Violence) and exploitation, including through demands for sexual favours in exchange for jobs and even essential goods.
Informal workers are enduring violent circumstances worldwide. CEDAW recommends governments to take effective measures to monitor and improve the working conditions of women in informal and private sectors by ensuring regular labour inspections and social protection coverage. While regulating unions can invite backlash, long due leadership in trade unions can also create a power dynamic favourable to the cause.
The ILO has called for promoting a transition of women from the informal to the formal economy and extend labour protections and social security coverage, including the planned pension scheme and the universal health insurance system, to women employed in the informal economy.
This year, the 16 Days of Activism Campaign has called for the ratification of ILO Convention-190 by countries which deal with gender-based violence in the world of work. India still has not ratified the convention. It’s fair to believe that C-190 ratification will create an international obligation on India to pay attention to this shadow area.