Sexual Harassment At Workplace

A nation may do without its millionaires and without its capitalists, but a nation can never do without its labour.”- Mahatma Gandhi.

With the globalization of economies, companies are operating internationally and there have been demands from these companies for liberalization in the labour laws. The influx of foreign companies has also increased the demand for more relaxation in labour laws to make investment conditions more conducive.

The issue of labour laws in India, in the context of globalization has been a touchy one ever since the liberalization era began in the early 1990s. The laws were framed in haste and the main focus was to keep up with the trend of globalization and retrenchment of the ‘surplus labour workers’. In fact, the country was not ready for that surprise. Neither the employer nor the trade unions knew about the effects of globalization and the government was also in deep slumber. The consumers were exposed to international goods at highly competitive prices. Jayati Ghosh in her memorial lecture says-“this globalization process is not of the working class, it is beneficial for the rich people with large capital.”

Globalization has both merits and demerits. One of the major issues which is a serious and a real problem from globalization is “sexual harassment at the workplace”. An ILO publication says “those who have experienced sexual harassment know what a deeply humiliating and demeaning thing it is.”

The workforce has shifted from being male dominated to one of equality between men and women. But both in developed and developing countries women have to face many barriers for seeking equal treatment in most of the organizations. In almost all organizations women are employed at junior positions. Due to unwanted sexual behaviour of male co-workers in the workplace makes it difficult for the female employees to get promoted to senior levels. Sexual harassment consists of any unwanted sexual behaviour including suggestive look, words, gestures, sexual jokes, physical touching or pressure for sexual favours. Sexual harassment can present itself in a number of forms most predominantly physical and psychological. On the physical aspect the female employee is directly harassed or persecuted by a senior colleague most commonly a manager or supervisor. She is prevented from making an issue out of it or taking it up with higher authorities by threats of losing her job or god forbid by revenge or retaliation. Again both these threats are used to intimidate her physically thus leading to additional mental trauma. She then has no option but to either, continue with the physical abuse or to keep her much needed job or to just leave the employment. But this does not guarantee the end of the physical threat to her. On the contrary, the perpetrator may go as far as feeling secure that the employee is no longer an employee of the organization (hence he is not subject to inquiry within the organization) and thus easy prey outside.

Sexual harassment at workplace has an adverse effect not only on the sufferer but it also impacts the organisation. It has an adverse affect on the working of organisations when the people working in that organization are harassed. It threatens organizational stability and disrupts balance of power. It even affects the productivity, interpersonal relationship, morale of the employees and also demotivates them which directly hampers their performance.

Supreme Court of India defined sexual harassment for the first time in Vishakha case and gave out the guidelines known as “Vishakha guidelines” which apply to both organized and unorganized sectors and to all women whether working part time or on contract or in voluntary capacity. It says – “sexual harassment is any unwelcome sexually determined behaviour such as physical contact; demand or request for sexual favours; sexually coloured remarks; showing pornography; or any other physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature.”[1] The Vishakha guidelines lay down certain preventive steps that an employer or responsible persons within the organizations should keep in mind in order to prevent women from sexual harassment at workplace like: there should be the express prohibition of sexual harassment at the workplace, there should be complaint mechanism and complaint committee etc. In this case Supreme Court has also done the job of legislature of the law making but still the legislature is silent about the issue and the guidelines are not followed. Very few complaint committees are set up, rules are not amended as required and the judgment is widely disregarded both by public and private employers.

The legislature after a long silent span of 16 years came out with the ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (the “Act”)’, fountainhead of which is based on the guidelines given out by the Supreme Court in Vishakha’s case. Finally, after a long passage of time the legislature realized to address this issue and enacted this Act in 2013. The Act goes one step ahead and brings the domestic workers, temporary employees, daily wagers and even the volunteers under its umbrella. It widens the power of women as they can seek protection under this Act even if there is any implied promise or threat of any preferential or detrimental behavior. The one more important thing about this Act is that it is not only limited to workplace rather it extends to any place arising out of or during the course of employment. The alternative system of Internal Complaint Committee is a good alternative to our long delayed criminal system but it needs more alteration. Moreover, the implementation of this Act will put an extra burden on the employer. It is an accepted fact that the Act is a positive move to protect the women from sexual harassment at workplace but the overall impression of the Act is that it is not well drafted.

The future is bright, but what needs to be done is to get “globalised” laws to match up with the pace of “globalization” to make the Indian Labour force “globally” ready.

[1] Vishakha v. State of Rajasthan,AIR1997 SC 3011

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