India must have zero tolerance for workplace sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is not just a violation of human rights, in the workplace it also damages productivity and professional relationships. Recent cases in India have drawn attention to the problem, but the ILO is working with employers and managers to address sexual harassment in the workplace and change attitudes.

Comment | 02 September 2013
By Tine Staermose, Director, ILO Decent Work Technical Support Team for South Asia and Country Office for India

(Delhi, India) More than 16 years ago a fine piece of progressive judicial action by the Supreme Court of India gave the world of work a pleasant surprise. Filling a national legal gap, the “Vishaka” judgement boldly relied on international law to formulate effective measures “to check the evil of sexual harassment of working women at all workplaces” in India. It also called upon the Indian government to follow suit by enacting a law against sexual harassment. On 26 February 2013, the government complied with the Court’s order, and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Bill, 2012 was passed by the Upper House of the Indian Parliament, the Rajya Sabha (enacted in April 2013).

Sexual harassment is a serious manifestation of sex discrimination at the workplace and a violation of human rights. It undermines equality, calling into question the integrity, dignity, physical and psychological well-being of workers. At the same time, enterprises are being undermined because poor work relationships also damage productivity.

As a result of the gruesome attack and murder of a young female medical student in New Delhi in December last year, and the rape of a woman photographer in Mumbai in August, India has developed a reputation as being unsafe for women. Every day, many cases of violence against women are reported in the media, including in workplaces.

Companies increasingly realize they need to take action to address violence at the workplace. The President of the Gujarat Employers’ Organization, Vipul Ray, speaking at an ILO-supported workshop, told his audience that they had to “prevent and address sexual harassment with zero tolerance, regardless of the high status of the perpetrator, to ensure a safe workplace for our workers and healthy growth of our company”. Employers in India are studying the new Act and reviewing existing practices to find ways to prevent and deal with sexual harassment. The ILO is supporting these efforts, in collaboration with the All India Organisation of Employers (AIOE).

What is important is that employers, managers and workers discuss how workplaces can become fully compliant with the Act, and share experiences in addressing concrete cases of workplace sexual harassment, not only against women but also same-sex sexual harassment, sexual harassment against men, as well as false complaints.

While many questions remain on how to implement the Act the consensus among employers and managers is clear: the imperative for action is not only moral. No company can afford to ignore workplace sexual harassment because of the negative effects on the workforce and the potential reputational damage.

The attitude shown so far by employers is encouraging, in view of India’s commitment under the ILO Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1957 (No. 111), ratified in 1960.
The Convention protects workers from violence and harassment and outlaws discrimination on the grounds of sex, race, colour, religion, political opinion, and national or social origin. The ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations has emphasized that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination and should be addressed through the Convention.

It may seem common sense that society should be safe for both women and men to exercise their civil rights. However deep-rooted socio-cultural behavioural patterns, which create a gender hierarchy and which tend to place responsibility on the victim, work against equality in the work place and in society in general.

One significant obstacle revealed by the ILO’s work in South Asia, is the general lack of awareness of the issues among employers, managers and workers themselves. Female workers often do not recognize sexual harassment as a serious violation of their rights. They treat it as uncomfortable but inevitable and something they cannot do anything about. Other workers and supervisors also consider sexual harassment as a personal matter which should be resolved by the parties involved. It is therefore critical to change mind-sets and attitudes by creating awareness about what constitutes sexual harassment.

Women’s labour force participation in India is notably low; 29 per cent compared to men’s 81 per cent (2009-2010 figures). Without ensuring a more conducive, violence-free working environment, women’s participation may decrease further. India is gifted with a young workforce. Combined with skills training, manpower planning and the development of a workplace culture that ensures a safe and violence-free environment, India should be able to harness its great human potential and contribute to the well-being of families, as well as to the inclusive economic growth of the country.

However, this will not happen without real change and a pro-active, clear, zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment in enterprises, combined with a sustained commitment to legal enforcement.