Female exploitation is increasing day by day so every female should know their rights at workplace
From inception, women have always been subject to sexual exploitation be it home or workplace. However, there have been few laws favouring women, as I mentioned in my earlier column, it is deplorable that up to the year 1997, in a populous country like India, there were no formal laws pertaining to sexual harassment of women. It was only after the famous landmark case of Vishakha vs The State of Rajasthan that the Supreme Court of India set up certain guidelines and norms known as the ‘Vishakha Guidelines against Sexual harassment at Workplace’ in the year 1997.
According to the case, in 1992, a social worker named Bhanwari Devi was brutally gang raped by a number of upper class men in Rajasthan because she had tried to stop a child marriage. Bhanwari Devi was determined to get justice and lodged a case against the offenders. However, the accused were acquitted by a trial court. This appalling injustice, together with the fighting spirit of Bhanwari Devi, inspired several women’s groups and NGOs to file a petition in the Supreme Court under the collective platform of Vishakha.
These SC guidelines elaborated on the duties of employers, definition of sexual harassment, preventive steps that can be taken, criminal proceedings that can be initiated, disciplinary action, forming a complaints committee and mechanism, creating awareness among others. Later the guidelines were superseded by the Act and were made enforceable and mandatory for every workplace only in the year 2013.
In the light of the recent incident of a female employee accusing the CEO of The Viral Fever (TVF), Arunabh Kumar of sexual harassment, the Act needs to be interpreted and analysed in a new light. At the outset it is pertinent to know what is ‘sexual harassment’? Black’s Law Dictionary (i.e. a lawyer’s bible) simply defines ‘sexual harassment’ as a type of employment discrimination consisting in verbal or physical abuse of a sexual nature.
The Act of 2013 applies only to women and covers sexual harassment elaborately and ” includes any one or more of the following unwelcome acts or behaviour (whether directly or by implication) namely: (i) physical contact and advances; or (ii) a demand or request for sexual favours; or (iii) making sexually coloured remarks; or (iv) showing pornography; or (v) any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature.” The Act further includes any act or behaviour of sexual harassment may amount to sexual harassment if “(i) implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment: or (ii) implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in her employment; or (iii) implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status: or (iv) interference with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for her; or (v) humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety.” The scope of this definition is vast and applies to even a demand for sexual favours or remarks or conduct. The Act has been a welcome step towards protection, prohibition and addressing the issue of sexual employment at work.
The Act also defines a workplace and “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.”
Another vital mandate under the Act is that every workplace as defined above must have an Internal Complaints Committee which shall be constituted as per the provisions of the Act and the Presiding Officer shall be women at the senior level position. Another aspect covered under this Act is how women can freely make a complaint to the Committee and even under the Right to Information Act, 2005, contents of complaint, the name of the complainant and inquiry proceedings are not permitted to be disclosed by the employer.
However, every law has its flip-side and this Act too has been misused by women many times in their favour for promotions, harassment, to malign the reputation of the employer among other reasons. And though Arunabh Kumar has denied all allegations of sexual harassment against him by his current as well as ex-employees who have alleged that they have been subject to sexual harassment, this issue has to be addressed very sensitively and meticulously and must result in protecting the aggrieved party and punishing the offender.