Women: Harassed at work? Here's a law to your rescue

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New Delhi, April 26: Love your job, but fed-up of the harassment (sexual) that comes along with it? Don't look for a new job, brush up on your rights. The sexual harassment at workplace bill, is now a law. President Pranab Mukherjee gave his consent to the bill. The law offers relief to women working in the organised and unorganised sector including domestic workers and agricultural labourers as well.

The Parliament cleared the bill in February this year. According to the act, sexual harassment includes any one or more of unwelcome acts or behaviours like physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours or making sexually coloured remarks or showing pornography.

Women

Cases under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) law, will be taken up by in-house committees and have to be disposed by these committees within 90 days, failing to do so, will attract a penalty. That's not all, repeated non-compliance to the provisions of the law will attract higher penalities and defaulting organisations may have their licences cancelled or registrations to conduct business cancelled.

Non-compliance with the provisions of the act shall be punishable with a fine of up to Rs 50,000. The law also has provisions to safeguard against false or malicious charges.

Parliamentary Standing Committee, which had examined the bill, firmly believed that preventive aspects reflected in the bill had to be strictly in line with the Supreme Court guidelines in the 1997 Vishaka case. The apex court's judgement in the case not only defines sexual harassment at workplace but also lays down guidelines for its prevention and disciplinary action.

This law will help move in the direction of gender equality, create awareness as well as provide a sense of security to women at their workplace environment. However, any good to come off the law, a strong enforcement mechanism will need to be in place.

Do in-house committees exist?

In reality, the existence of these committees is a big question. Most employees aren't aware of their existence. "They do not exist in all places, only a few companies have these in-house committees," says Suresh Kodoor, spokesperson, ITEC - a Bangalore-based forum that provides support and welfare to people in IT & ITeS sector. Currently, the formation of these in-house committees have been on voluntary basis.

He also pointed out that there are some companies that encourage informal forums for women, where women at the workplace can get together and discuss concerns, these are safe platforms that can also make new joinees comfortable. "Most places, the point of contact is the team leader or manager. As a new employee one may not feel comfortable discussing harassment for fear of being labelled a whinner," he said.

Therefore, having a functional in-house committee will be paramount.

So, who can ensure that these committees are in place? "The labour commissioner can" offers Kodoor, adding, "There needs to be an enforcement mechanism in place to ensure the corporates comply to the law. One way of keeping track would be to have a report send to the concerned authority [labour commissioner] every six months or so." The report could furnish details like how many complaints came to the forum, what was the action taken, etc.

It will, therefore, be a mammoth task to ensure all companies have 'functional' in-house committees.

And, including the unorganised sector has brought in some cheer. "Shows that, retrospectively, domestic workers are considered workers, that we've a workplace," says Geeta Menon, of Stree Jagriti Samiti, Bangalore, who works for women's rights in the unorganised sector.

However, as an unorganised sector, it is difficult to define and have an in-house committee, domestic workers grievances will be addressed at a larger base and at the district level - comprising district officials concerned with women's issues and NGO's, she said.

While this is a step in a positive direction, one needs to wait and watch how the law comes of use to women at work.

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