First, it started as a trickle of bold expose by a few. Then it opened up the floodgates of years of pent-up frustration and anger of numerous women. The #MeToo phenomenon then literally turned into a deluge. The true colours of many big guys — from Bollywood celebrities to top-notch media barons, from reputed academic dons to NGO bosses — got exposed. Their credibility is lost beyond salvage.
Some technical and legalistic objections were raised, of course: “Why not then and why now?”, “Why you didn’t follow the due process of law and file a formal complaint?”, “It is your word against the man’s? Where is the evidence?” and so on. But when the upsurge turned into a literal uprising all such nit-picking fell by the wayside. Perhaps, this is how deep-rooted and widespread social maladies like unbridled sexual assaults at workplace surface as unconventional backlash, a festering sore crying for an unusual cure. Many men are already in shudders fearing whether their past “indiscretion’ would catch up with them. The problem might not come to a total end now but for a long time to come this payback by women would have a sobering and deterrent effect on sexual predators in work situations. Across the globe, millions have already been emboldened to speak out, at least in the social media. In that sense, this historic upheaval, though unconventional and not strictly following the laid-down norms, is a welcome one. After all, historical advances do not always go by the rule-book!
But like all uprisings, this too is bound to ebb. How to make maximum out of this moral outrage to create some long-term institutional and legal guarantees against such harassment of women workers like Justice Verma Committee did in the context of Nirbhaya upsurge? Why this cancerous problem had to find such an unorthodox expression despite the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplaces Act being in place from 2013 onward? What can be done to further improve it? Above all, how can trade unions be awakened to play a constructive role in this?
But then sexual harassment at work situations is not just a gender issue or a women’s issue; it is as much a labour issue as well. So how our huge trade unions have responded to this massive #MeToo wave? When contacted to ascertain this, Gurudas Dasgupta, the AITUC veteran and perhaps one of the tallest trade union leaders in the country, gave a cryptic reply with a touch of sadness in his tone that there has been no response at all.
Kumudini Pati, who had tackled several issues of sexual harassment at workplace as the general secretary of the All-India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) for 13 years and as an outsider-member of the internal complaints committee of the Central Government Health Scheme for nearly a decade, says there is ample scope for improving the sexual harassment law so that more and more women can be emboldened to come out and file formal complaints immediately.
The Prevention of Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act definition of workers include all formal and informal sectors employees, including managerial staff to blue-collar workers, from temps and contract workers to even part-time sales workers and unwaged voluntary workers. Likewise, the definition of workplace too has a wide coverage, including all offices and factories, shops and establishment and even transient work situations like an outdoor film unit that might exist just for a few hours and so on. Still, in practice, there is gross under-coverage. Internal complaints committees (ICCs) have not been constituted in many establishments till date, Kumudini Pati feels. Area-based complaint committee for workers in informal units with less than 10 workers should be formed at the panchayat level instead of at the district level as at present.
Many women victims hesitate to approach the complaints committees because they fear getting doubly victimised in a hierarchic power relation — first through sexual abuse and if they choose to complain then through harassment at work. More stringent provisions are needed against such vengeful harassment at work. The committees have only the powers of a civil court to summon records/documents and to summon witnesses but no penal powers to even suspend or transfer an alleged offender pending completion of enquiry when a prima facie offence is made out.
Secondly, the victims usually shun publicity. The committees insist that the women employees should give signed complaints but there is no provision to take action against the committee members who reveal the name of the complainant. Though the law provide for 50% representation in the ICC, only women officials are usually nominated and all sections of employees including lower cadre should be represented and there should be space for elected member(s) of the union(s) in the ICC.
Moreover, the committees can only report their findings to the top management and it is the management which has to take action. When the senior management officials are accused, how can their juniors conduct impartial enquiry against them? So, independent outsiders should be made to head the ICC in such cases.
What constitutes evidence is still a grey area. If it is found that the complaint cannot be proved, there is a provision to penalise the woman complainant. This is a deterrent. Greater clarity is needed on what constitutes evidence and women workers should be educated on compiling irrefutable evidence. Even recorded audio conversations should be admitted as evidence. Where they face sex pests, installation of CC cameras at women’s requests should be made mandatory and the women should be provided at state’s expense necessary equipment like recording devices and secret cameras to fix the culprits. And where the offences are serious enough to attract IPC sections, the victims can file FIRs and directly approach the courts and the labour ministry should bear legal expenses of such workers in fighting those cases. Such improvements to the law and its enforcement can have a salutary impact in curbing the animal behaviour of male superiors and colleagues. (IPA)