Finally, the #MeToo movement has arrived in India – a country where it needs to be discussed every day. We are all discussing the perpetrators. However, there are others involved, who need to take up responsibility and owe an equal explanation to everyone – The Workplaces. The organisations are liable to protect and ensure that all their employees are provided a safe and secure working environment. Most of them are not only gender biased but also absolutely unsafe, given the skewed ratio of women in top management roles – however, that’s a debate for another day!
While creating a safe workplace has been an obligation bestowed on organisations from 1997 when the Supreme Court in its landmark judgement Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan had called out to employers to provide a safe workplace, it took a good 17 years for the same to take shape of a law.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (“ACT”) clearly carves out MUST DOs that organisations need to follow, which include:
- Constitute an Internal Committee
- The Presiding Officer has to be a woman
- Two internal members committed to the cause of women/social work or with legal knowledge
- One external member
- Formulate and disseminate the policy
- Declare name and details of members of the Internal Committee
- Display at conspicuous places the penal consequences of sexual harassment and the order constituting the Internal Committee
- Organise awareness programmes to sensitise employees
- Orientation programmes for members of the Internal Committee
- Securing attendance for the presence of witness and respondent for conducting an investigation
- Making required information available to the Internal Committee for conducting an investigation
- Provide assistance to file a police complaint, if the complainant, opts to file a complaint
- Monitor submissions of reports by Internal Committee
- Submit Annual Report before the District Office.
The Act also lays down strict penalties for non-compliance, which may include even cancellation of business license.
The important fact to note here is that this law while trying to protect women also takes into account the fact that most people may not realise what could constitute sexual harassment. Hence it makes training an important part of what needs to be followed by the organisation.
A lot of organisations are concerned that once there is training or presence of an Internal Committee in the organisation, the number of cases will increase. However, it is a better forum that can be approached by a complainant then go to the press media or police.
The Act emphasises on giving a fair and equal opportunity to the accused to put forward his case as well. The members of the internal committee are senior members of the organisation and importantly consist even of external members, hence making the body a fair body.
Having an internal committee does not take away the right of a victim to approach or take any other legal route available to her. The committee, however, is a quick and easier forum to approach.
The Act mandates that the investigation is completed in three months, hence there is no endless wait for an action to be taken.
Further, during the period of investigation, the lady has the right to ask for extended leave or change in place, etc. This helps in ensuring that the perpetrator and she need not be in close association and she is not uncomfortable.
The Act also gives a complainant the power to choose to reconcile the matter on the basis of a penalty she thinks may be appropriate (however, no monetary penalty is allowed). This gives her the power to let the perpetrator know the fact that his actions made her uncomfortable and at the same time she can choose not to go into an investigation.
Also, an important aspect to note is that the punishment meted is depending on the nature of harassment, which also gives a chance for reformation to the perpetrator.
Most of issues and concerns around sexual harassment can be reduced by organisations taking a strong stand against harassment. It is time to call on the money-making systems to take responsibility and provide for a better and safe working space for one and all. Start by just following the Act.
Aparna Nair is an independent legal consultant. She works closely with Interweave Consulting Private limited a consulting organisation focused exclusively on Diversity and Inclusion solutions for corporates.