Responding to #metoo

When the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, was passed in 2013 it was considered a significant expansion of the Supreme Court guideline of 1997 dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace. The #metoo movement that has gripped the media and the entertainment industry over the past two weeks suggests that the law urgently requires further expansion. The 2013 Act expanded the ambit to cover women in any working environment – from domestic helps to those in the unorganised sector and covers clients and customers. Critically, it also expanded the sphere of the workplace from the immediate office environment to include any place visited by the employee during the course of employment including transportation, and non-traditional workplaces which involve telecommuting. What it does not do, principally because the situation did not arise before, is offer guidelines on how companies should tackle questions raised by the current #metoo tweet-storm.

The biggest and most obvious gap in the law flows from retrospective accusations. The Act offers no clues to how organisations should proceed when, say, an extant employee stands accused of past transgressions by women with no immediate link to the existing company. There can be little argument that these, too, should be investigated, not least to send reassuring signals to other women employees within an organisation. The current #metoo tweet-storm, however shrill the tonality, reflects a greater sense of empowerment that is curtailed by an understandable hesitation to file complaints with the police. The law, therefore, needs to move in sync with the times. Common sense dictates an obvious path of action in such cases, and some organisations have responded by mobilising the internal complaint committee mechanism to address backdated external claims. But the law should not rely on the subjectively variable element of collective organisational wisdom or the accumulation of convention to redress this use. Explicit steps to deal with such contingencies – including, for instance, deposing non-employees – would go a long way towards reassuring women that the Indian legal system, at least, takes their rights seriously.

The fact is that for countless ordinary women in the unorganised sector – and that includes in politics – the path to redressal is non-existent. The laws stipulate setting up local complaints committees in every district for organisations with 10 or fewer employees. Currently, their existence is about as evident as the Asiatic cheetah in India. Where corporations are liable to fines for not setting up complaints committees, there are no penalties for districts that lack such set-ups. In the same vein, the Act needs to acquire some balance: It rightly offers protection to women who complain; the same rights should be extended to men who stand accused. Ensuring the principles of natural equity is the best guarantor of women’s rights. Lastly, beyond the changes required in the Act per se, the latest series of episodes have also underscored the importance of leadership in the workplace. A crucial reason why several women have resorted to public naming and shaming is the deep-set belief that formal channels are unresponsive. This needs to change. Leaders across workplaces must ensure that the formal system is both sensitive and responsive enough for female employees to feel confident in registering a complaint.

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