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Sexual Harassment at the Workplace: Experiences with Complaints Committees

Implementation of the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace - the Vishaka guidelines - remains limited. As this study conducted in several workplaces in West Bengal reveals, complaints committees have not been constituted in most organisations and many are yet to amend their service rules as directed by the guidelines. The paper takes a detailed look at how the committees function and the challenges faced in the very process of implementation.

SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW April 26, 200899Sexual Harassment at the Workplace: Experiences with Complaints CommitteesParamita Chaudhuri Implementation of the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace – the Vishaka guidelines – remains limited. As this study conducted in several workplaces in West Bengal reveals, complaints committees have not been constituted in most organisations and many are yet to amend their service rules as directed by the guidelines. The paper takes a detailed look at how the committees function and the challenges faced in the very process of implementation. In 1997, the Supreme Court of India passed a landmark judgment commonly referred to as the Vishaka judgment to be followed by all establishments in dealing with preven-tion and redress of sexual harassment. The judgment recognises and defines sexual harassment of women at workplaces for the first time. Prior to 1997, the only recourse women workers experiencing sexual harassment at the workplace (herein SHW) had was lodging complaint under sections of Indian Penal Code. Further workplaces and employers did not have accountability towards safety and security of their women employees. It is mandatory that the Vishaka judgment, which is in form of a series of guidelines, be implemented in workplaces all over the country regardless of the nature of work or status of women workers. Authorities and employers must institute certain rules of conduct as preventive measures to stop sexual harassment and set up complaints committees within organisations to look into specific complaints. The complaints committees must be headed by women and at least half its members should be women. To prevent undue pressure from within the organisation, the com-mittee should include a third party representative from a non-governmental organisation or any other individual, conversant with the issue of sexual harassment. Sanhita is a women’s rights group, based in Kolkata, working to ensure implementation of sexual harassment guidelines that are intrinsic to efforts towards creating gender just workplaces. The organisation’s programme focuses on establishing systems of governance and accountability in workplaces. The presence of a third party representative has been important to develop an understanding of workplace dynamics. As part of Sanhita, we have been present as third party representatives in public sector undertakings, central and state government organisations and diverse other workplaces in the insurance and banking sectors, etc. During the course of our work we experienced that workplaces take little initiative in constituting complaints committees and often set these up only after intervention by monitoring agencies. Such actions are often of little significance. Many authorities become oblivious to the existence of complaints committee soon after their constitution. The present study has been designed to understand the func-tioning of complaints committees, that constitute a significant part of the implementation process about which, however, scant information is available. The findings report on constitution, meetings held, reported complaints, perceptions held on the issue of sexual harassment and role of third party representatives. The author wishes to acknowledge Soma Sen Gupta of Sanhita for making the study possible and editing the paper, Amrita Rudra for conducting the interviews and providing valuable comments and Shalini Gupta for assistance.Email: para_chaudhuri@yahoo.co.in
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly100The study focuses on those complaints committees only where Sanhita was present as the third party. Background In the years immediately after the Vishaka ruling, there has been confusion over the implementation of the guidelines, especially about the role and function of complaints committees. In response to this inadequacy regarding employment situations and role and failure of implementation, a writ petition was submitted by acti-vists in the Supreme Court in 2001. The court held that inquiry into the complaint has to be made by the complaints committee alone and there cannot be any other inquiry. Hence, the fate of the complaint depends on whether the committee is properly constituted and whether it follows proper procedures. There is, however, limited data regarding the constitution and functioning of the complaints committees. The small amount of information that is available provides negligible information about how the guidelines are implemented. In some instances the employers are unaware of their obligations and in most cases, they know they can get away with non-compliance. Many work-places fulfil legal obligations by constituting complaints commit-tees which remain only on paper. Rarely do members have orien-tation on the guidelines, gender issues or inquiry procedures.1 Larger multinational corporations claim such committees and policies are unnecessary. “In instances of sexual harassment, the corporation by itself would not be able to take any action whatso-ever because we do not follow a policy against sexual harass-ment,’’ noted a senior officer in the human resource department of a public sector undertaking. Ironically, the judiciary has been the most reluctant institution in setting up complaint mecha-nisms. In a case of the Chennai High Court where a woman staff alleged harassment by a senior administrative staff, the chief justice after much delay appointed a one-man inquiry into the matter. The complainant requested the court to appoint a com-plaints committee to which the court filed a reply that the Visha-kha guidelines was not applicable to the judiciary as it would affect its independence!2 In a study done five years after the Supreme Court ruling by the West Bengal Commission for Women with Sanhita, various government departments, directorates and institutions were sur-veyed between September 2002 and January 2003. The study re-vealed that many of these places were yet to form a complaints committee; in the case of those who had, many were not formed as per the guidelines.3 In another study conducted in four hospi-tals in Kolkata, it was found that none of the hospitals had a complaints committee, neither were the authorities interested in constituting one. Of the 135 women interviewed, only 22 had heard of the Supreme Court guidelines.4Data also indicates that workplaces usually constitute com-plaints committees only after intervention by some external body. In fact as many as 10 complaints committees in different government departments, directorates and institutions in West Bengal where Sanhita is the third party representative were formed between 2002 and 2003 soon after a study on the imple-mentation status was conducted by West Bengal Commission for Women and Sanhita. When a reporter of a leading newspaper made a verbal complaint to the editor against the news coordi-nator, she was asked to quit. It was only after intervention from external agencies that a sexual harassment complaints commit-tee was set up both in its Kolkata and Delhi offices.5In another instance a senior scientist with a research institute was issued transfer orders when she complained of sexual har-assment by her immediate superior. The complaints committee was constituted only after the institute received a directive from the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT). But the constant ad-vice that the complainant received from the committee was that such transgressions were “natural” and something she should learn to cope with if she desired to progress in her career.6Complaints committees even when constituted fail to offer re-dress. For instance, when a woman employee of a pharmaceutical company complained of harassment by her boss, the committee set up by the management included some associates known to the offender; the verdict understandably went against the com-plainant.7 In another case a senior academic after promising to appoint a junior staff member to a permanent position took her to a “lonely place” supposedly to get her employment status regu-larised and later abused her. After an enquiry, the offender was found guilty. However, the authorities decided to retain him as he held a powerful position in the institution. It was the woman who lost her job.8In another instance the State Commission for Women (SCW) Delhi held that three senior officials of a Delhi state government department had “failed to exercise their ‘duty’ while investigating a sexual harassment complaint” for there were established facts and circumstances that the accused had committed an act of sexual harassment by physically misbehaving with the complainant. The department is yet to initiate any disciplinary action against three of its senior officials for not dealing with the case properly.9Evidence drawn from the limited information available suggests that by and large, employers do not take much initiative in consti-tuting or in the functioning of the complaints committee; redress for most women thus remains difficult to access. Moreover, there is very little data about the functioning of these committees, the procedures adopted while hearing the case and justice rendered. Study DesignTo develop an understanding about the functioning of complaints committees an exploratory study was undertaken by Sanhita in workplaces which include the government, both state and central and public sector undertakings (PSUs). Sanhita is the third party representative in about 35 complaints committees till the time of writing. The present report is based on interviews with chair-persons of 25 complaints committees; 10 complaints committees did not respond to requests for interview. Two among these 10 organisations did not respond to letters and phone calls. For the rest, chairpersons had either been transferred or had retired/ and committees had not been reconstituted. Consent was sought from the chairpersons prior to the inter-view. In most workplaces, other members of the committee besides the chairperson participated in the meetings. Discussions involved around constitution of the committees, meetings held, how the committees functioned, orientation/awareness programmes held,
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008101complaints dealt with, and perceptions regarding issues of sexual harassment and gender discrimination at the workplace. The study further focused on the involvement of third party represent-atives in the functioning of the complaints committees. The study was initiated by written requests for interviews and respondents were assured all confidentiality. The interviews were conducted over a period of three months from April to June 2006. This report is presented in four sections. Section 1 details the functioning and constitution of complaints committees, Section 2 studies the perceptions on prevalence of sexual harassment at workplace, Section 3 lays down the approaches adopted towards complaints resolution and Section 4 looks at the role of third party representatives and complaints committee 1 ComplaintsCommitteesThis section details the profile of chairpersons, the presence of male members in the committees, if any, and the functioning of committees. The number of members varies between 3-6 and 7-11 on the average. One central government organisation has 17 members in an attempt to be as representative as possible. Five committees were formed between 1998 and 1999, five between 2000 and 2001; 10 were formed between 2002 and 2003 and the remaining five were constituted between 2004 and 2006. Most of the chairpersons in complaints committees constituted by the state gov-ernment were junior in hierarchy with designations such as stenographer, upper division clerk, and comput-ing supervisor while chair-persons in the central government organisations and PSUs were mostly middle level officers and there were few in senior posi-tions. The complaints committee in one of the organisations did not have a chairperson after the latter had resigned following allegations of bias by a complainant. Two of the chairpersons were unsure of their positions as chair-persons, as the committee members had never met since the committees were set up four years ago. One chairperson who belonged to another organisation was unable to provide any information about the complaints committee. Constitutional Dilemma The Supreme Court guidelines direct that the complaints com-mittee must be headed by a woman and also provide 50 per cent representation for women. This directive led to appointment of women quite junior in the hierarchy in many organisations, and consequently brought to light the absence of women in senior positions. The initial tendency in many organisations was to nominate men as chairpersons. Two of the organisations con-tinue to have men as chairpersons, citing absence of senior women in the organisation as an explanation; authorities in these organisations feel the complaints committees will have no credi-bility otherwise. Two were all-women committees; in one of these two committees, senior male officers were present at meetings in an ex-officio capacity. This is in spite of the fact that the chairper-son herself is a senior officer. Other than one committee in which the ratio of men to women was almost equal, in all other commit-tees more than 50 per cent members were women. Meetings Four of the complaints committees had never met. Three com-mittees could not remember the dates of meetings last held as relevant files could not be located; 10 committees had not met after 2005. The chairpersons reported that meetings were not held on account of “important” official work, absence of allotted funds, unwillingness of members to take up res-ponsibility and the ab-sence of complaints. The transfer of committee members was also report-ed as an obstacle in the functioning of committees by at least four respond-ents. Members reported that complaints committees were not re-constituted and had become defunct after transfer of chairper-sons and other members. Everyone is so busy here, we find it difficult to find time and sexual harassment is not a burning issue.Chairperson of a complaints committee. In the absence of complaints we did not think it necessary to have a meeting.Chairperson of a complaints committee.Many chairpersons said that they did meet often informally. Respondents from six complaints committees said meetings were held informally and not recorded, two chairpersons werenot sure about meetings that were held. In such informal meetings letters are not issued, minutes not maintained and third party representative also not informed. Those who pre-pared the minutes were unsure whether copies were even sent to the third party.The Vishaka guidelines directs that “complaints committees must make an annual report to the government department con-cerned of all the complaints and actions taken by them”. And also, “The employers and person in charge will also report on the compliance with the aforesaid guidelines including on the re-ports of the complaints committee to the government depart-ment”. Annual reports however were not prepared by most of the complaints committees in the study. Fifteen chairpersons said that reports were not made on account of absence of complaints. Orientation and Policy Twenty one chairpersons informed the study that the committee members had not attended orientation programmes. Three chairpersons felt orientation was not necessary. One of them commented, “the members are enlightened and knowledgeable Table 2: Members in Complaints Committees Number of PSUs Central West Bengal Total Members GovernmentGovernment3-6 3 1 8 12 7-11 3 1 6 1011-17 1 1To be reconstituted 1 1 2 Total 7 4 14 25 Sample size, 25.Table 3: Meeting Last Conducted Meeting PSUsCentral WestBengalTotal Last Held Government Government 2006 3 1 2 6 2003-05 2 8 10 Before 2003 1 1 2 Never met 1 1 2 4 Do not know 1 1 1 3 Total 7 4 14 25 Sample size, 25.Table 1: Profile of Chairpersons PSUs Central West Bengal Total GovernmentGovernmentMale 1 2 3 Female 6 2 11 19 Unsure 1 1 2Absent 1 1Total 7 4 14 25 Sample size, 25.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly102about the Vishaka guidelines and no separate orientation was necessary”. None of the organisations studied had a policy on sexual har-assment in place. A respondent from one PSU informed that the legal department at the organisation’s head office framed certain regulations in consultation with employees at different levels and branches across the coun-try. They were, however, unaware about the con-tent of these regulations. Most respondents had never thought about the possibility or need to have such a policy in place. Opinion about the relevance of such a policy was divided. Seven chairpersons felt that it was not necessary to have a policy and a mere change in the code of conduct would suffice. One chairper-son dismissed the need for a policy by saying that each complaint is unique and requires specific intervention. Five other respond-ents felt that a policy would be useful, as it would provide guide-lines regarding inquiry procedure and help generate awareness.It is important to understand how to create and maintain a “gender equitable workplace”. This will be a positive approach with focus on prevention. The management comprises mainly of males; they may not be sensitive to the problems faced by women. If there is a policy, certain procedures will be laid out and adopted. Chairperson of a complaints committee. 2 Perceptions of Sexual HarassmentMost workplaces have dismissed the need for implementation of the guidelines by saying that instances of sexual harassment can-not happen in their workplaces. Some reasons attributed are that employees come from “good families’” “are highly educated” and share “family like relationships (sic) in the workplace”. This trend of “other”-isation continues. While 19 out of 25 chairpersons acknowledged the occurrence of sexual harassment, only eight respondents agreed that it could occur in their workplace. The remaining 11 respondents felt that it occured in “other” workplaces. This was despite the fact that respondents from 18 organisations had reported complaints of sexual harassment. Two respondents felt that it happened at the “lower levels”, or amongst those “not well educated”. Four of those in government departments felt that harassment occurred less in the government sector, andif it occurred at all, the perpetrator would most likely be an outsider. Those considered vulnerable were largely women in contrac-tual positions, women employed on compassionate grounds or newcomers. Jokes or comments were mentioned, as incidents that were common and “normal”. However all felt that the pres-ence of complaints committees was important as the possibility of sexual harassment occurring at their workplaces in the future could not be ruled out. It happens at the lower levels. Especially in the work areas where men and women share a common space: comments are passed, sometimes “bad” pictures are left on the female employee’s desk or inside her drawer. Chairperson of a complaints committee.There are schemes where women are employed in casual positions. There is a greater chance of exploitation here – women have had to render physical favour as well.Chairperson of a complaints committee. My friend was teased on her first day. They sprayed orange juice into her eyes. When she protested they told her that newcomers face such things. It was just ragging. My friend was really scared and asked for a transfer. I told her that this happened because that organisation did not have a strong women’s association. Even if there are five women, they should get together and form an association.Complaints committee member. Gender at the Workplace About half the respondents acknowledged the impact of gender dynamics in the workplace. Instances shared include organisa-tional preference for recruitment of men for jobs requiring field-work and travel, women not being taken seriously by male colleagues in the workplaces, or being allotted work not significant or their having to work extra hard in order to get recognition. Respondents felt that the advancement of a woman worker was attributed to her being able to please the boss. Many respondents felt that women were pre-judged as inefficient workers on grounds of marriage, child rearing, shouldering household responsibilities, etc. Just as people take advantage of newcomers and get them to do eve-rything, they try the same thing with women. In order to counter that one has to work very hard and have knowledge about everything,Chairperson of a complaints committee. At each stage they (men) find a reason not to give women enough work; such as “now she is new”, “she is newly married”, “now she is pregnant” or “she has recently become a mother”. Later on they will say “now she is old so she can’t do any work”. Women here are not given any major responsibilities. One can rarely see a women placed in a senior executive position. Chairperson of a complaints committee. When I was junior I faced discrimination. I protested saying that I was capable of doing the same work as men and I had the right to get better projects. Now that I am senior and allot work, I give women some benefits. I try not to keep women beyond office hours. I don’t schedule work for women on weekends or holidays. I will not call this discrimination for I realise women manage a double burden or work and home. Chairperson of a complaints committee. 3 Approach towards Complaints ResolutionRespondents from 18 organisations reported 25 incidents of sexual harassment. Five of these complaints had been received from one single complaints committee. Of the remaining seven organisa-tions, six did not receive any complaint or hear of any incident. The present chairperson in one or-ganisation was unaware of the occur-rence of the incident, which had occurredpriorto her appointment and was resolved. Four incidents in threeorganisations had occurred prior to the constitution of complaints committees and were dealt with Table 4: Orientation of Members Orientation for PSUs Central West Bengal Total CC Members Government Government Have had 2 1 3 Have not had 5 2 14 21 Do not know 1 1 Total 7 4 14 25Sample size, 25.Table 5: Cases/Incidents of Harassment Cases/ PSUs Central West Bengal Total Incidents GovernmentGovernmentCases/ incidents 10(7) 2 (2) 13(9) 25 incidents (from 18 organisations) No cases received 1 5 6 Do not know 1 1 Figure in brackets indicate t number of organisations, sample size 25.
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008103by the authorities themselves. Fifteen organisations have received 21 cases since the constitution of their complaints committees. The majority of incidents in-volved comments, which include personal remarks that had sexual undertones and were humiliating in nature. This is followed by hos-tile work environment. Some of the incidents were experienced by the chairpersons themselves. Some of our male co-workers would make comments/crack jokes. They were not directed at us, but the two of us didn’t like it. Chairperson of a complaints committee. He would call me after office hours, make me sit in front of him and invite me to have fun, “‘mauj masti’ with him”. Chairperson of a complaints committee. One of the chairpersons experienced insubordination by her staff who refused to pay heed to her instructions. “They would come and leave as they pleased” and in one instance shattered her glass table top in a violent outburst. Anoth-er chairperson from aPSU ex-pressed her help-lessness while narrating her ex-perience: “You can call me a victim too. I have a male senior who persists in cracking really dirty jokes. I have told him that I don’t like it but that makes him do it more. What can be done?” As many of the harassers were senior to the harassed as they were equal to them in rank. This implies that apart from those in positions of authority, significant number of colleagues as well as juniors harass women workers. Such colleagues usually are mem-bers of unions/associations that provide considerable clout to those who might not otherwise be senior in organisation hierar-chy. It further implies a reflection of societal norms about gender and sexuality in the workplace. As one of the respondents who has been harassed by her subordinates commented: “…had a male doctor been in my place they would not have dared to speak to him in the same manner”. Inquiry Procedure Complaints committees members, except one, felt that in the absence of multiple complaints they neither had the opportunity nor felt the need to develop a clearly defined procedure for inquiry and redress. Only one complaints committee had a mechanism in place for investigating complaints. This committee had received the maximum number of complaints. However the absence of a policy created situations where the committees attempted to resolve complaints as per their discretion. In one instance the chairperson tried to conclude the complaint on the basis of documents provided by the management in the first meeting itself. The case was properly heard and the complainant got a chance to depose only after intervention by the third party. In some places complaints committees had been forwarded complaints even three years after these were lodged. This often happens as authorities continue to constitute independent inquiry committees to look into the complaints bypassing the complaints committees in the process. Such complaints are for-warded to the complaints committee usually at the insistence of the complainant. Complaints are rarely received by the complaints committees directly but forwarded by the authorities at their discretion. One organisation has an internal standing committee to deal with sexual harassment related matters. Complaints are referred to the complaints committee only when the internal committee can-not deal with the matter and if complaints have “merit”. This happens in spite of the clarification by the Supreme Court in May 2004 which states that “complaints committee as envis-aged by the Supreme Court in its judgment in Vishaka’s case, 1997 will be deemed to be an inquiry authority for the purpose of Central Civil Services (CCS) (Conduct) Rules and the report of the complaints committee shall be deemed to be an inquiry report under the CCS rules”. Power Dynamics Power dynamics influence the inquiry, recommendations by the complaints committee and even any subsequent action taken by authorities. Often action is taken with alacrity when the accused is junior in rank. However, when the accused is an important of-ficial, there is a complete contrast in attitude of the complaints committee that ranges from reluctance to look into cases to deferring the preparation of reports. In at least two instances, the head of organisation clearly conveyed during a deposition to the complaints committee that services of the harassers were indispensable. If the complainant leaves the institution, it does not matter but if the accused were to leave it will be a great loss. Head of department. At times, the complaints committee members including the chair-person appear to have been overwhelmed by the presence of har-assers who were senior in organisational hierarchy. The testimony given by the accused in such cases is sacrosanct. The chairperson in these situations tried to influence the third party by expressing appreciation about the ability and character of the accused. He has such a gentle disposition. It is highly improbable that he can say such things. He was speaking so politely while deposing. You were also there, did you not notice this? Chairperson of the complaints committee to the third party. Table 6: Nature of Sexual Harassment Nature PSUs Central West Bengal Total GovernmentGovernmentComments 6 3 9 Proposals 2 3 5 Attempt to rape 1 1 Hostile work environment 1 2 3 6 Exposure 1 1 Not known 1 1 Other 1 1 2 Sample size, 25.Table 7: Profile of Harasser Profile of Harasser PSUs Central West Bengal Total GovernmentGovernmentHarasser senior to harassed 4 1 5 10 Harasser junior to harassed 2 1 1 4 Co-workers 4 6 10 Unknown 1 1 Total 9 2 13 Sample size, 25.Table 8: Patterns in Case Referrals Pattern of Referral PSUs Central West Bengal Total GovernmentGovernmentIncidents formally reported to complaints committee 3 2 8 13 Matter dealt/being dealt without referring to complaints committee 7(3*) 5(1*) 12 * Incidents occurred prior to formation of complaints committee, sample size, 25 .
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly104When the harasser is powerful, sexual harassment is attri-buted to “professional jealousy’” “irregular dealings by the com-plainant” or “misunderstandings”. Further, the complaints com-mittees at times do not make the necessary connection between the incidents of sexual harassment and consequent hostile work environment. In one instance, the harasser slapped the complain-ant when she refused to agree to his overtures. The complaints committee refused to consider the incident of her being slapped as coming under its purview.We are trying to categorise the incidents of sexual harassment. The incident of slapping is not sexual in nature. Chairperson of complaints committee. Motivated Incidents Of the 25 incidents narrated by the respondents, seven have not been recorded as genuine complaints. In two of these, the chair-persons did not acknowledge the complaints as sexual harass-ment and dismissed them as “trivial” or “nothing”. The remain-ing five complaints were dismissed as “motivated”. One of the chairpersons commented: “I personally have not come across a genuine complaint. When I feel that a complaint is genuine I will take the initiative in championing its cause. But I have to be convinced.” Complaints were dismissed as motivated on the grounds that they had been made to seek revenge, to prevent unwanted trans-fers or other personal gains. In two instances, complaints were subsequently withdrawn leading the chairperson to conclude that they were motivated. However circumstances wherein the complainants experienced extreme duress to withdraw their complaints were not considered. In another instance, a woman employee of aPSU complained of sexual harassment against a group of male employees. The chairperson on the basis of a pre-liminary informal inquiry felt that “her complaints began after being transferred”. She refused to consider that the transfer was unwarranted and it was an attempt to harass her in other ways too. The third party is not consulted if the complaint is not con-sidered genuine. Action has been taken in nine of the 25 reported incidents. In a majority (five of these nine) of the complaints, action taken included reprimands and apologies. Of the remaining 16 incidents, inquiry was not conducted in three complaints and thus no action taken. In one complaint the harasser was per-ceived powerful due to his association with the union. In the remaining two complaints the women concerned declined to make formal complaints. One of the chairpersons commented, “I didn’t get involved, as there was no written complaint”. Action remains pending in two cases in spite of completion of inquiry and submission of the report by the committee. Reasons include fear of backlash by harassers and ambiguity regarding establishment of guilt in the complaints committee reports. Matters also get informally handled. One of the chairpersons reported: “(the) junior girls tell us that someone pushed them while walking past or passed some comments. We scare the harassers (if they can be identified); we tell them they may lose their jobs if the matter gets reported.” Five complaints were either dismissed or the complainants were asked to withdraw as they were considered to be “motivated” at the preliminary inquiry stage itself. Initiatives towards Redressal Initiatives taken by a complaints committee to complete its inquiry and submit its report often depended on directives from higher authorities. In one organisation the director after being implicated of sexual harassment handpicked friends from both within and outside the organisation and constituted the complaints committee. Sanhita was appointed as the third party after intervention by monitoring agency at the behest of the complainant. Prior to Sanhita’s intervention, the chairperson was inclined to dismiss the complaint without allowing the complainant to even depose. Complaints related to verbal comments are likely to get dismissed without being recorded as formal complaints. A chair-person from a PSU reported: “A male sub staff passed comments and teased a women assistant. The chief regional manager reprimanded the man. I did not keep any record as ‘it was nothing’.” The complaints committees have also taken action on their own initiative. In one such instance the members on learning about an “affair” between two employees had the woman transferred from that particular building. There was no complaint and this was done without consent of the woman concerned.Why Do Women Not Complain? Respondents said that women do not complain fearing loss of reputation, loss of job, consequent hostile work environment and fear of retaliation in public places. The chairpersons said that “only 1 per cent of the cases are reported”. One respondent felt it was advisable for women to sort out problems on their own. This respondent commented, “If a woman faces (a) problem, she should directly talk to the harasser and resolve the matter. If she complains the whole issue becomes very serious. The harassment may not stop and she may find it difficult to continue working in a hostile work environment.” If the work environment is not conducive then women tend to internal-ise their problems and go into a shell. Women don’t complain against their co-workers for they fear consequent hostile work environment. There are only a few women at workplace. Complaints committee member. For the Attention of Subscribers and Subscription Agencies Outside IndiaIt has come to our notice that a large number of subscriptions to the EPW from outside the country together with the subscription payments sent to supposed subscription agents in India have not been forwarded to us.We wish to point out to subscribers and subscription agencies outside India that all foreign subscriptions, together with the appropriate remit-tances, must be forwarded to us and not to unauthorised third parties in India.We take no responsibility whatsoever in respect of subscriptions not registered with us.MANAGER
SPECIAL ARTICLEEconomic & Political Weekly EPW april 26, 2008105We (senior women) speak to the juniors, caution them about this sort of thing and tell them to inform us if something like this happens.Chairperson of a complaints committee. Often young unmarried women may be more reluctant to complain as they feel that their characters will be called into question. A young female patient complained but her family members did not want to pursue the incident fearing publicity. Chairperson of a complaints committee. 4 Role of Third Party Representatives While discussing the issue of third party representation in the complaints committees, a concern that arises time and again is that many organisations are uncomfortable about presence of an outsider in what they consider to be an “internal matter”. This is especially so during complaint resolution. It further gets reflected in their interaction with the third party. Case Redressal According to the chairperson of a complaints committee in one of thePSUs, “The third party comes in when the organisation can-not deal with the matter”. While respondents freely discussed other issues during interviews they were reluctant to share inci-dents of sexual harassment. Of the 25 reported complaints from 18 organisations, eight complaints committees involved Sanhita in the inquiry of 12 complaints. Data indicates that most com-plaints committees involved the third party in inquiry processes only when the internal preliminary inquiry establishes the complaint as “genuine”. Complaints considered “trivial” and “motivated” were handled internally. Apprehensions Dilemma about any interaction with the third party can be un-derstood in the context of anxiety as expressed by four respond-ents about the possibility of the former “interfering” in internal matters of the organisation. As a chairperson commented, “The third party should not interfere in our work, matters should not go beyond control of our authorities”. The respondents said, “committee needs the third party to take greater initiative to arrange meetings as the chairperson and members remain busy”. But they also added that the third party representative would be called to attend meetings only at the discretion of the organisa-tion. Of the 13 complaints committees, which recorded minutes, only one sent copies to the third party. The study findings are corroborated by our experiences of working with complaints committees as third party representa-tive. These include reluctance to share important documents per-taining to the complaint, absence of consultation before finalis-ing meeting dates etc. Another area of disquiet is the hostility that emerges when the third party indicts the accused, a senior personnel whom the organisation is trying to shield. For instance in one central government institution the chairperson in an at-tempt to reject the views of the third party tried to limit its role to observation of the inquiry procedure. This she attempted through legal interpretations offered by the organisation’s lawyer. Signifi-cantly this was not done when inquiry procedures were laid out but after the third party presented its view. Respondents on the whole were of the opinion that the third party would create awareness, provide information on the issue and current developments, take initiative in organising meetings and provide advice during case inquiry. For two respondents in-teraction with the third party was a way of getting information about the functioning of other complaints committees, which helped them in turn review their own functioning. One respond-ent felt that the presence of the third party added credibility to the meetings. Another respondent said “third party keeps pres-sure on us so that we can resolve complaints”. The impartial na-ture of the third party was considered important in dealing with complaints especially those involving people in authority. The third party can conduct awareness initiatives for the employees. The idea is to educate the employees so that such incidents do not occur and crude/rude or objectionable behaviour is minimised. The newer staff will benefit from this greatly and it would act as a refresher for the other staff. Chairperson of a complaints committee. As the chairperson and other members are busy, the committee needs the third party to take greater initiative for arranging meetings. Chairperson of a complaints committee. Conclusions The findings of our study confirmed that complaints committees even when constituted as per the guidelines remain largely non-functional and sexual harassment is still perceived as occurring in “other” workplaces. In spite of the presence of complaints com-mittees, authorities have dealt directly with nearly half the com-plaints reported. The study revealed that complaints committees become de-funct when chairpersons and other members are transferred. Respondents reported this as an obstacle in the functioning of the committees. Meetings were not held regularly and records not kept. The existence of such complaints committees indicates official compliance with the Vishaka guidelines only on paper. The sole function of the complaints committees appears to be case redressal, in the absence of which members feel they do not have much of a role to play. The consciousness that awareness programmes can contribute towards creating a culture that empowers women is yet to be realised. Men continue to be present as chairpersons in complaints com-mittees. Organisations have cited the absence of senior women as reasons for having male chairpersons. This issue raises concerns about the absence of women in senior positions. Further this creates a situation where other members of the committee are also junior in rank. The complaints committees consequently are unable to nego-tiate initiatives for addressing gender issues with the management. But while the importance of having senior male members within the committees cannot be denied, the presence of men, if too senior, may marginalise women members including the chairpersons. Members continue to be confused about the range of behav-iour that may be termed as sexual harassment. They often did not make necessary linkages between the acts of sexual harassment and consequent work related harassments. This confusion leads not only to dismissal of complaints, but also discourages women from complaining in future.
SPECIAL ARTICLEapril 26, 2008 EPW Economic & Political Weekly106More than half of the respondents articulated concerns related to prevalence of gender discrimination at the workplace; but they are yet to raise this issue at the complaints committee level. They felt that such problems fall outside the scope of the complaints committees. Thus the need for adequate orientation of the members, which in turn will enable complaints commit-tees to respond effectively to problems of women workers emerges as a concern. Significantly although incidents of sexual harassment occurred in almost all the organisations, one third of com-plaints have been dismissed as either “motivated” or “trivial”. At times complaints has been considered “resolved” by the chairpersons/authorities without bringing it to the attention of the complaints committee. The third party has been in-volved with the inquiry at the discretion of the chairpersons. Respondents repeatedly expressed hesitation about involving the third party, an outsider, in the internal matters of the organisation. The complaints committees are spaces where women have been legally mandated to take leadership initiatives. The study however indicates that to enable women take up such leader-ship positions, capacity development programmes geared towards orientation on law and rights need to be initiated. Finally, effective implementation of the Supreme Court guidelines on sexual harassment at the workplace depends both on constitution of proactive complaints committees and develop-ing adequate monitoring mechanisms. This implies developing policies that provide overall directions including developing case redressal procedures that ensure confidentiality, protection of the complainant from victimisation, timely addressal of complaint, capacity development, and a work environment that empowers women workers to raise their concerns. Notes 1 The Hindu, September 18, 2005; ‘Campaign-ing for Women’s Rights, http://www.hindu.com/2005/09/18/stories/2005091800980200.htm 2 Tom Dannebau and Keya Jayaram, ‘Combating Sexual Harassment at Workplace’, Indian Centre for Human Rights and Law. 3 Implementing Vishaka: A Status Report, West Bengal Commission for Women with Sanhita, July 2004.4 ‘Sexual Harassment in the Workplace: Experi-ences of Women in the Health Sector’, Paramita Chaudhuri, Health and Population Innovation Working Programme, Working Paper 1, 2006.5 NWMI, network of women in media, India;0 Rina Mukherji’s case against The Statesman. (http://www.nwmindia.org/About_us/Centres/bengal/rinas_case.html)6 D Nagasaila and V Suresh, ‘Harassment at Work’, PUCL Bulletin, May 2001. (http://www.pucl.org/reports/National/2001/harassment.htm)7 Naunidhi Kaur, ‘Court Ruling Fails to Stop Sexual Harassment’, Asia Times online, July 10, 1999, India/Pakistan, http://www.atimes.com/ind-pak/AG10Df01.html8 Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, Mala Ramanathan, P Sankara Sarma and others, ‘Sexual Harassment in the Work Place: Lessons from a Web-based Survey’, http://www.ijme.in/132oa047.html9 The Hindu, September 13, 2006, ‘Delhi Transco Fails to Take Action against ‘Erring’ Officials’, http://www.thehindu.com/2006/09/13stories/2006091323350300.htmGreen Left Weekly

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