Sexual harassment in workplace is a serious irritating factor that renders women’s involvement in works unsafe and affects right to work with dignity (Alok Bhasin, Sexual Harassment at Work, EBC, 2007). It is unwelcome verbal, visual or physical conduct of a sexual nature that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment. Generally sexual harassment is a sexually oriented conduct that may endanger the victim’s job, negatively affect the victim’s job performance or undermine the victim’s personal dignity. It may manifest itself physically or psychologically. Its milder and subtle forms may imply verbal innuendo, inappropriate affectionate gestures or propositions for dates and sexual favours. However it may also assume blatant and ugly forms like leering, physical grabbing and sexual assault or sexual molestation.
To fit in the concept of sexual harassment the relevant conduct must be unwelcome. That is unwelcome to the recipient of that conduct. Conduct is not sexual harassment if it is welcome. So in order to determine if the conduct was welcome or unwelcome, Courts would naturally look to the complainant’s reaction at the time the incident occurred and assess whether the complainant expressly, or by his or her behaviour demonstrated that the conduct was unwelcome. If the evidence shows that the complainant welcomed the conduct the complaint of sexual harassment would fail. For this reason, it is important to communicate (either verbally, in writing, or by your own actions) to the harasser that the conduct makes you uncomfortable and that you want it to stop.
However, before 1997, women experiencing sexual harassment at workplace had to lodge a complaint under Section 354 of the Indian Penal Code that deals with the criminal assault of women to outrage women's modesty, and Section 509 that punishes an individual or individuals for using a word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman. These sections left the interpretation of 'outraging women's modesty' to the discretion of the police officer. The entire scenario changed in 1997 with the introduction of Vishaka guidelines.
Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment- A quick recap
The Supreme Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan for the first time recognized, acknowledged and explicitly defined sexual harassment as an – unwelcome sexual gesture or behaviour aimed or having a tendency to outrage the modesty of woman directly or indirectly.
Defining sexual harassment as an act aimed towards gender based discrimination that affects women's right to life and livelihood, the Supreme Court developed broad based guidelines for employers. This mandatory guidelines known as Vishaka guidelines are aimed towards resolution and prevention of sexual harassment. These guidelines bring in its purview all employers in organized and unorganized sectors by holding them responsible for providing safe work environment for women.
The Vishaka guidelines apply to all women whether students, working part time or full time, on contract or in voluntary/honorary capacity. Expressly prohibiting sexual harassment at work place these legally binding guidelines put a lot of emphasis on appropriate preventive and curative measures. (The guidelines include the following as acts of sexual harassment: Physical contact and advances, Showing pornography, a demand or request for sexual favours, Any other unwelcome physical, verbal/non-verbal – such as whistling, obscene jokes, comments about physical appearances, threats, innuendos, gender based derogatory remarks, etc.)
Some of the important guidelines are:
Thus the Vishaka guidelines stipulated that all organisations would form a complaints committee to look into any such allegation. It would be headed by a woman employee and not less than half of its members would be women. All complaints of sexual harassment by any woman employee would be directed to this committee. The committee would advise the victim on further course of action and recommend to the management the course of action against the person accused of harassment.
However in Medha Kotwal Lele v Union of India coordinator of Aalochana, a centre for documentation and research on women and other women’s rights groups, together with others, petitioned the Court highlighting a number of individual cases of sexual harassment and arguing that the Vishaka Guidelines were not being effectively implemented. In particular, the petitioners argued that, despite the guidelines, women continued to be harassed in the workplace because the Vishaka Guidelines were being breached in both substance and spirit by state functionaries who harass women workers via legal and extra legal means, making them suffer and by insulting their dignity.
The Court stated that the Vishaka Guidelines had to be implemented in form, substance and spirit in order to help bring gender parity by ensuring women can work with dignity, decency and due respect. It noted that the Vishaka Guidelines require both employers and other responsible persons or institutions to observe them and to help prevent sexual harassment of women. The Court held that a number of states were falling short in this regard. It referred back to its earlier findings on 17 January 2006, that the Vishaka Guidelines had not been properly implemented by various States and Departments in India and referred to the direction it provided on that occasion to help to achieve better coordination and implementation. The Court went on to note that some states appeared not to have implemented earlier Court decisions which had required them to make their legislation compliant with the Vishaka Guidelines.
Sojourn to a comprehensive piece of legislation
On 23rd April 2013, the legislature finally brought into force a comprehensive legislation dealing with the protection of women against sexual harassment at workplace by enacting “The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013. The Act has in fact sought to widen the scope of the guidelines issued by the Supreme Court by bringing within its ambit (amongst other things) a “domestic worker” (Sec 2e) defined to mean a woman who is employed to do the household work in any household for remuneration whether in cash or kind, either directly or through any agency on a temporary, permanent, part time or full time basis, but does not include any member of the family of the employer.
The Act has defined “sexual harassment” (Sec. 2n) to include any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely: (i) physical contact and advances; (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; (iii) making sexually coloured remarks; (iv) showing pornography; or (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature. Further, the following may also amount to sexual harassment: (i) implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment; (ii) implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment; (iii) implied or explicit threat about present or future employment status; (iv)interference with work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment; or (v) humiliating treatment likely to affect health or safety.
The term ‘employee’ (Sec. 2f) includes regular, temporary, ad hoc, daily wage employees and persons who are working on a voluntary basis i.e. without remuneration. The term also includes contract workers, probationers, and trainees. The Act defines “aggrieved woman” (Sec. 2a) to mean: (i) in relation to a workplace, a woman, of any age whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment by the respondent; (ii) in relation to a dwelling place or house, a woman of any age who is employed in such a dwelling place or house.
As per the Act workplace (Sec.2o) includes: (i) any department, organisation, undertaking, establishment, enterprise, institution, office, branch or unit which is established, owned, controlled or wholly or substantially financed by funds provided directly or indirectly by the appropriate Government or the local authority or a Government company or a corporation or a co-operative society; (ii) any private sector organisation or a private venture, undertaking, enterprise, institution, establishment, society, trust, non-governmental organisation, unit or service provider carrying on commercial, professional, vocational, educational, entertainment, industrial, health services or financial activities including production, supply, sale, distribution or service; (iii) hospitals or nursing homes; (iv) any sports institute, stadium, sports complex or competition or games venue, whether residential or not used for training, sports or other activities relating thereto; (v) any place visited by the employee arising out of or during the course of employment including transportation provided by the employer for undertaking such journey; (vi) a dwelling place or a house.
Complaint mechanisms under the 2013 Act
The Act contemplates the constitution of Internal Complaints Committee (“ICC”) (Sec. 4) at the work place and Local Complaints Committee (“LCC”) at district and block levels (Sec. 6). A District Officer (District Collector or Deputy Collector) shall be responsible for facilitating and monitoring the activities under the Act
Every workplace employing 10 or more employees is required to constitute an ICC. The ICC is required to consist of at least four members, and its presiding officer is required to be a woman employed at a senior level. Provisions have been made in case no senior woman employee is available, to nominate a woman presiding officer from another office, administrative unit, workplace, or organisation. Further, one half of the members must be women. LCCs are to be set up by the appropriate government which shall receive complaints in respect of establishments that do not have ICCs on account of having fewer than 10 employees and to receive complaints from domestic workers.
Steps involved in the Complaint Process –Empowerment?
A complaint is to be made in writing by an aggrieved woman within 3 months of the date of the incident. The time limit may be extended for a further period of 3 months if, on account of certain circumstances, the woman was prevented from filing the complaint. If the aggrieved woman is unable to make a complaint on account of her physical or mental incapacity or death, her legal heirs may do so.
Upon receipt of the complaint, the ICC or LCC must proceed to make an inquiry in accordance with the service rules applicable to the respondent or in their absence, in accordance with rules framed under the Act.
The inquiry must be completed within a period of 90 days. In case of a complaint by a domestic worker, if in the opinion of the LCC a prima facie case exists, the LCC is required to forward the complaint to the police to register a case under the relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code.
Where the ICC finds that the allegations against the respondent are proven, it must submit a report to the employer to: (i) take action for sexual harassment as a misconduct in accordance with the provisions of the applicable service rules or where no service rules exist, in accordance with rules framed under the Act; (ii) to deduct from the salary or wages of the respondent such sum as it may consider appropriate to be paid to the aggrieved woman or to her legal heirs.
The employer must act on these recommendations within 60 days.
Scope for Conciliation and Settlement
Before initiating an inquiry, the ICC or LCC may, at the request of the aggrieved woman, take steps to arrive at a settlement between the parties. However, no monetary settlement can be made as the basis of such conciliation (Sec. 10(1))
In case the ICC or LCC is of the view that a malicious or false complaint has been made, it may recommend that a penalty be levied on the complainant in accordance with the applicable service rules (Section – 14). However, an inquiry must be also made. Mere inability to substantiate a complaint will not attract action under this provision.
The Duties of an Employer
The Act makes it the duty of every employer to: a) provide a safe working environment at the workplace which shall include safety from all the persons with whom a woman comes into contact at the workplace; b) display at any conspicuous place in the workplace, the penal consequences of sexual harassment and the order constituting the ICC; c) organise workshops and awareness programmes; d) provide necessary facilities to the ICC for dealing with complaints and conducting inquiries; e) assist in securing the attendance of the respondent and witnesses before the ICC; f) make available such information to the ICC or LCC, as it may require; g) provide assistance to the woman if she so chooses to file a criminal complaint; h) initiate criminal action against the perpetrator; i) treat sexual harassment as a misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for such misconduct; and j) monitor the timely submission of reports by the ICC.
Where the employer fails to comply with the provisions of the Act, he shall be liable to be punished with a fine which may extend to Rs. 50,000. In case of a second or subsequent conviction under this Act, the employer may be punished with twice the punishment prescribed or by cancellation of his licence or withdrawal of his registration.
It has been more than seven months since the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 received its assent from the President of India. But unfortunately there has been a failure on the part of the WCD ministry to notify the legislation .Moreover the rules specified under the legislation have not come into effect. As a result there is a lot of confusion especially among state governments, on whether the law can be implemented without the central government notifying the rules. However, looking at the rising number of reported complaints of sexual harassment it is evident that the new law has at least served to improve awareness about the obligations of employers and rights of employees in case of workplace sexual harassment. The resentment towards incidents of sexual harassment is also increasing. Perhaps this legislation will help the silenced voice of women audible by taking off the feet that coerce women’s necks.
Dr.Bismi Gopalakrishnan is the Assistant Professor at Department of Law, University of Kerala. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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