The new law on sexual harassment at the workplace in India: an opportunity for ETI members and others to push for action on the discrimination provisions in the ETI Base Code.
A few months ago there was a rape case in Delhi so horrific that it was reported around the world - and the huge upsurge of anger it inspired; a young medical student was gang raped, and eventually died from her injuries. Sadly rape is all too common in India; 24,206 rape cases were registered in India in 2011, although experts agree that the number of unreported cases is much higher. A Parliamentary Committee noted that “crimes against women” are increasing year on year and now total nearly 230,000. Abortions of female foetuses has resulted in a skewed child sex ratio, which is getting worse. The 2011 India census data just released shows that the ratio for the age group 0 - 6 years deteriorated in the last the decade, from 927 to 919 females for every 1000 males. This is why India is said to be missing 80 million women.
The public reaction to the rape case seems to have jolted the Indian political class out of its usual inertia and the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 has finally become law after years in limbo.
Any company sourcing from India now needs to consider the implications, as the law applies to all workplaces. It could provide the breakthrough we need for real progress on Clause 9 of the ETI Base Code: Physical abuse or discipline, the threat of physical abuse, sexual or other harassment and verbal abuse or other forms of intimidation shall be prohibited.
How do we know if sexual harassment takes place at a workplace? Workers who are victims are very unlikely to offer this information to a company representative, or social auditor. There are ways to find out if there is a general problem; I once asked male supervisors at a garment factory to role pay how they persuade worker to improve and the physical gestures were enough to set alarm bells ringing.
But specific complaints? We know that it is hard enough in the UK, let alone in societies where there are estimated to be 80 million “missing women”. Some companies have tried telephone hotlines, but the results are not encouraging.
So - will the new law make a difference? First of all, a quick guide to its provisions:
- Every employer is required to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee This has to include a senior woman manager, and “one member from amongst non-governmental organisations or associations committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment.” At least half the members have to be female.
- An “aggrieved woman” in the words of the Act, can make a complaint to the committee which must investigate the case. If proved, the committee can recommend disciplinary action against the respondent, which the employer MUST implement within 60 days.
- Employers must also “organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitising the employees with the provisions of the Act and orientation programmes for the members of the Internal Committee in the manner as may be prescribed;”
- Employers also must “treat sexual harassment as a misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for such misconduct”. Service rules are a key document in Indian workplaces and set out contractual arrangements and define what conduct is expected. When an employer wants to initiate disciplinary action, they will follow “standing orders” - what we would call a disciplinary procedure in the UK. So these will need amending as well.
- It is worth noting that the definition of workplace is quite wide - and includes workers employed through labour contractors.
- Employers have a breathing space - the government has yet to announce the date it will come into force.
The awareness programmes, the committees, the changes to the service rules - all these could start to create an atmosphere in factories where women can speak out; and we can start to find out the real extent of the problem.
What can ETI corporate members and other companies do?
Talk to your suppliers about the law. Ask them what steps they are taking to set up the Internal Complaints Committee. Suggest that they revise their service rules to bring them into line with the new law.
Ask auditors to check how suppliers are implementing the law, when they are checking compliance with the Base Code provisions on discrimination and harassment. They should find out who is on the internal committee, and interview them. They can ask workers if they know about the committee, and what training they have had.
Stirling Smith is an independent consultant working for a number of companies, including some ETI members. He is a former official of the ILO, covering health and safety in South Asia and is an ETI trainer.