Chennai: Harassed at work, suffering in silence

Instances of sexual harassment in the workplace are on the rise, but many women don’t report it due to fear of stigma and lack of awareness.

Published: 02nd January 2018 02:47 AM  |   Last Updated: 02nd January 2018 12:25 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Whether it was American film producer Harvey Weinstein, online content creator The Viral Fever’s CEO Arunabh Kumar, or even Raya Sarkar’s anonymous list of about 80-odd people in academia who were named and shamed by victims, 2017 will certainly be remembered as the year that saw sexual harassment at the workplace not being brushed under the carpet but openly discussed. While this is reassuring, a look at the abysmally low number of complaints coming to the city’s local complaints committee points to the fear and lack of awareness among victims to lodge a formal complaint.

In 2011, the workforce participation rate at the all-India level was 25.51% for females and 53.26% for males. In Tamil Nadu, 31.8% of the workforce comprised women and data showed that with participation of the workforce comes the threat of harassment at the workplace. The Institute for Applied Manpower Research listed it as a major ‘challenge’ that leads to women ‘withdrawing from the workforce.’

Going unreported

“Female harassment took different forms, harassment on sexual lines being the most extreme one,” the institute observed in one of its studies. “Often females did not report such incidents and, in the survey, very few did so. But almost every female surveyed in rural Uttar Pradesh was of the opinion that incidents of male harassment in the workplace (particularly in agriculture and construction labour) was quite common.”

According to the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act), 2013, ‘sexual harassment’ is behavior that is unwelcome either directly or by implication. This includes physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favours, making sexually coloured remarks, showing pornography or any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.

There are certain other circumstances that could amount to sexual harassment like the implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment, the threat of detrimental treatment in her employment, threat about her present or future employment status, interference with her work or creating an intimidating, offensive or hostile work environment for her or humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety. “When we receive a case, an inquiry is conducted to check the authenticity of the complaint,” explained B Anbuselvan, Chennai District Collector, who chairs the local complaints committee. “If it is found even partly true, further probing is done. Action is taken after a thorough investigation is conducted. Depending on the intensity of the harassment, the offender is transferred as a first warning, but if the offence is very grave, disciplinary action is called for. In the complaints we have received so far, some were genuine while others were contentious but we have managed to resolve all. In some cases, a compensation was provided to the victim from the offender depending on the mental stress undergone by the victim.”

For those working in the unorganised sector, the issue gets more complex. Women shrug the advances off or keep ignoring them as they are in desperate need of the job. It was to provide these people with access to a grievance redressal system that the LCC was ordered to be constituted. However, due to victims’ lack of awareness and fear to register a formal complaint, the LCC in Chennai has not received a single complaint from the unorganised sector.

“We are poor people; we don’t know all this,” lamented R Swetha (name changed), who works as a domestic help. “I know I need money and for that I need work. When my employer started passing lewd comments, it made me extremely uncomfortable but I dismissed it because he never really did anything. It did make me want to quit my job but how could I? I had to make ends meet so I worked there for about six months before I found another job.”

Over 60% of factory workers have been exposed to harassment at work, ranging from verbal to physical and sexual violence, reported the NGO Sisters For Change. It goes on to elaborate that in the garment sector, what begins as sexual harassment in the factory often extends beyond the factory gates, leading to forced prostitution controlled by abusive male supervisors and managers.

However, even on a national scale, there aren’t enough women who are filing complaints. A report by Ernst and Young said data showed the number of complaints lodged with the National Commission for Women had gone up from 170 in 2011 to 336 in 2014 and 522 complaints in 2015.  Analysts and activists believe this is not even close to what the figures are on the ground.  Some experts feel making the filing of complaints anonymous will help, but others warn against this measure. “Allowing anonymous complaints is akin to opening a can of worms,” said advocate Sheila Jayaprakash. She firmly believed that confidence-building was the key and that it was the only effective way to get women to report harassment.

Delaying reforms

The organised sector is not much different. The Ernst and Young study found that 40% of the companies who were respondents were yet to train their Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) members, though the Act specifically ordered it.

“Many organisations have seemingly put the basics of anti-sexual harassment mechanisms and campaigns in place in their operations,” the report read. “Sixty nine per cent of the respondents had constituted ICCs in their organisations. However, 18% had not done so, despite there being a lapse of over a year from notification of the Act; 13% were still in the process of setting them up...The results of the survey indicated that over a quarter (27%) of the large companies and half the small and medium companies that were surveyed were not compliant with the Act.”

Garment sector worst hit

Over 60% of factory workers have been exposed to harassment at work, ranging from verbal to physical and sexual violence, reported the NGO Sisters For Change. It goes on to elaborate that in the garment sector, what begins as sexual harassment in the factory often extends beyond the factory gates, leading to forced prostitution controlled by abusive male supervisors and managers. 

Just six workplace sex harassment complaints in two years

Six complaints in two years. That is all the city’s Local Complaints Committee (LCC) has received since its inception in 2015 under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013. Officials say the meagre number of complaints only points to the lack of awareness or the failure of support systems that give courage to women to file complaints on sexual harassment they face at the workplace.

The LCC is independent of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) that every workplace with over 10 employees must have under the Act and is headed by the district collector. Out of six complaints received by the city’s LCC since 2015, none were from the unorganised sector. “The reason we have received very few complaints is the lack of awareness about the Act itself and the existence of the committee,” said B Anbuselvan, Chennai district collector. “We have taken it upon ourselves to go out and educate women, especially those working in the unorganised sector to have the confidence to share their grievances with us, without fear of their identity being revealed.”

But experts believe awareness alone is not enough. “Women must have confidence in their company or in the local complaints committee and that will only happen if they see these bodies functioning well and helping other women. Confidence-building is the key,” said advocate Sheila Jayaprakash.
Swetha*, who works as a domestic help was subjected to a slew of lewd comments from her former boss. When asked why she did not take up the matter, she plainly said, “Who would believe me?” This is the sentiment a lot of women echo when they ponder over lodging a complaint. (*name changed)

 

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