The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace mandates that each organization has to formulate an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy and publicise it within the organization
When Union Minister for Women and Child development, Ms. Maneka Gandhi said that most government offices and 90% of private firms have not complied with the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, she made a serious statement as she issued a stern warning to India Inc to comply with the said law or face severe consequences.
Despite the government enacting the Act two years ago, it is shocking that many companies have not taken it seriously. It is also strange that they do not realize that sexual harassment at workplace can blow into a major HR issue as well as many women face sexual harassment at workplace. It could come in any form from indecent proposals, jokes, innuendos, ogling, inappropriate remarks, pictures and, text messaging and MMS. Women do not complain fearing job loss and stigma that one may get as a nasty cribber. Some organizations even consider this harmless and in an ostrich-like behaviour even refuse to recognize the difference between a compliment and harassment.
These incidents may lead to a cycle of depression for the victim and ultimately lead to loss of morale, motivation and cause under performance and even absenteeism which contributes to a hostile work environment. Aggrieved women even feel insecure and quit jobs while organizations lose trained employees and the time and resources spent on training simply go waste.
Following a Supreme Court directive, the government enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 on 9th December 2013, but unfortunately most organizations do not seem to be even aware of the law. With the law coming into force, organisation can no longer dismiss workplace sexual harassment with a Chalta Hai attitude. This law is mandatory for every organisation whether they have women employees or not. The aggrieved women can even be a vendor, customer or passerby and as long as she alleges that your employee whilst on duty sexually harassed her whether within office premises or outside, you are responsible for providing assistance and redressal of such complaints.
As per our recent survey in a business district in South Mumbai, 98.5% of organizations had not complied with the said law mostly due to ignorance and few due to fear of misuse of law. Further, amongst the very few companies, who had complied with the same, most of them had merely formulated an Anti Sexual Harassment Policy as well as nominated a single Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) across all its locations in India. Even the composition of the ICC was not in consonance with law in a few instances. Several organizations in Mumbai have also been issued show cause notices in this regard by the Shop & Establishment Department and Labour Department.
Every organization, be it Public Limited Company, Private Limited Company, Limited Liability Partnership, Partnership Firms, Association, Society, Trust, Proprietorship or even an and NGO irrespective of size and number of the employees it has, it has to comply with the Act.
Failure to comply with the law could lead to heft penalties, imprisonment and even closure of business. In fact a company in Chennai, where a woman complained of sexual harassment, was fined Rs. 1.68 crores for its failure to comply with the law. The law is clear. Non-compliance can invite trouble for the managements. They even face charges of abetment of the crime and criminal prosecution.
Further, compliance with the Act needs to be reported in the companies’ Annual Reports. Smaller outfits have to file a report with the District Officers each year.
The law mandates that each organization has to formulate an Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy and publicise it within the organization. Organisatons employing 10 or more workers are supposed to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each location to attend to complaints. The Committee is to be headed by a Senior Woman employee and half of the committee should comprise of women. The ICC needs to have an external representative who could be a woman or an NGO. All employees of the organization must undergo sensitization training each year as the entire emphasis of the law is prevention of sexual harassment. It is pertinent to note that irrespective of the intention of the accused, the issue needs to be dealt with seriously as the impact of such incidents on the aggrieved woman matters a lot. Hence, even a single instance of forward of an indecent joke or picture on social media platforms can trigger a complaint.
The ICC members on its part needs to undergo skill building training as they become the fact finding body which will have to adhere to principles of natural justice with powers of the Civil Court while hearing and deciding the complaint. Further, recommendations of the ICC are liable challengeable before the Industrial Tribunal. In their annual report to be submitted to the organization and District Officer, the ICC has to disclose the training and sensitization programs organized by the organisation during the year amongst other facts.
By complying with the law, management of organizations can shield themselves from any legal consequences and ensure that prompt remedial action is taken against the perpetrator i.e accused in case of genuine complaints and the complainant in case of false and malicious complaints.