Sexual harassment results in violation of the fundamental ri?ghts of a woman to equality und?er Articles 14 and 15 of the Constitution and her right to life and to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Constitution and right to practice any profession or to carry on any occupation, trade or bu?s?i?ness which includes a right to a safe environment free fr?om sexual harassment. Prot?e?ction against sexual harassment and the right to work with dignity are universally recognised human rights by international conventions and instruments such as the convention on the eliminat?i?on of all forms of discrimination against women, ratified on June 25, 1993 by India.
The corporate history is not immune to such harassment. In 2001, Phaneesh Mu?rthy (then director, Infosys) was accused of sexual har?assment by his executive se?cretary – Reka Maximovitch. Infosys subsequently settled the lawsuit off court for $3 million and fired him. In 2013, Tarun Tejpal, a senior journalist and editor-in-chief of Tehelka was accused and charged, for rape of a young staff member during “Think Fest” – their annual concl?a?ve. Ex-Uber engineer Su?san Fowler had alleged her boss of sexual harassment. The identity of the accused is not clear, but Uber has been facing flak in the way the case was handled. Three women ha?ve accused former Teri ch?ief PK Pachauri of sexual harassment. Police filed a FIR in 2015, with allegations of sexual harassment, stalking and criminal intimidation. A former senior executive filed an FIR against ScoopWho?o?p?Co founder Suparn Pandey accusing him of sexually har?a?ssing her during the 2 years she worked for the website. These are just a few major ca?ses that came into the sp?otlight on sexual harassment in the corporate world. The media and subsequently the public have castigated several other organisations like Wipro, Uber and TVF.
The prevention of sexual harassment (PoSH) law is to prevent and to provide prot?e?c?tion against sexual harassm?ent of women at workplace as well as redressal of comp?l?a?ints of sexual harassment. The requirement to give legislative sanctity to the Vish?a?k?ha Guidelines, set up by the Supreme Court, as well as the need to provide a more co?mprehensive and robust framework around the burni?ng issue of sexual harassm?e?nt at workplace, led to Pa?rliament enacting the PoSH law. The law covers any/every pl?a?ce visited by the employee during the course of employment including transportation provided by the employer. Even non-traditional wor?k?places, like tele?c?o?mmuting, virtual spaces, etc are covered under the law.
India’s first comprehens?i?ve legislation specifically add?ressing the issue of sexual harassment at work – the PoSH law was formulated wi?th the core objective of pr?o?tecting employees against sexual harassment and pr?o?m?ising a safe, secure and dignified working environment for them. As per the Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 “sexual harassm?e?nt” includes unwelcome sexual behaviour, whether dire?ctly or by implication. Sexual harassment includes physical contact and advances, demand/request for sexual favours, making sexually col?o?ured remarks, showing por?n?ography, unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Wor?k?place includes office premises, canteen facility, guesthouses provided by the org?a?n?isation, seminars, client or vendor offices, transportati?on facility provided by empl?o?yers. The aggrieved woman can either by an employee, st?udent, a person visiting the workplace, temporary wager, domestic worker, subcontr?a?ct employee, etc.
The law provides that ev?e?ry employer having more th?an 10 employees must co?n?stitute an internal compla?ints committee (ICC) within the organisation to handle co?mplaints of the sexual harassment. ICC must include a presiding officer appointed from senior management and must be a woman. There should also be one external member from amongst non-g?overnmental organisations or a lawyer. In additional the?re must be at least two members representing the employees of the organisation. It is also essential that at least one-half of the total members so nominated shall be women. All complaints shall be made to this body, which must resolve every issue imp?artially. The employer sho?u?ld frequently sensitise employees through training sessions. Irrespective of the intention of the accused or the level of impact – every incident has to be taken seriously and probed by ICC. Even a single instance of forward of an indecent joke or picture on social media platforms can trigger a complaint.
ICC before initiating an in?quiry under section 11 and at the request of the aggrie?v?ed woman takes steps to sett?le the matter between her and the respondent through co?nciliation. But it should be noted that no monetary settlement should be made as a basis of conciliation. ICC sh?a?ll where the respondent is an employee, proceed to make inquiry into the complaint in accordance with the provisions of the service rules applicable to the respondent and where no such rules exist, in such manner as may be prescribed. As per section 509 of IPC, the court may, when the respondent is convicted of the offence, order payment of such sums as it may consider appropriate, to the aggrieved woman by the respondent. For the purpose of making an inquiry ICC shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 when trying a suit. This inquiry shall be completed within 90 days. The law also establishes certain process and procedure based on which the inquiry should be conducted.
With the recent tide of #Metoo everywhere all complaints should be seriously taken up. Simultaneously, if ICC arrives at a conclusion that the allegation against the respondent is malicious or the aggrieved woman or any other person making the complaint has made the co?m?plaint knowing it to be fal?se, it may recommend the employer to take action agai?nst the woman. However, it should be kept in mind that mere inability to substantiate a complaint or provide adequate proof need not attract action against the complainant under this section.
A survey conducted revealed that 38 per cent of the women/girls had faced sexual harassment at the workplace. Around 70 per cent of these aggrieved women refrained from making a complaint due to fear, embarrassment and lack of confidence. Around 42 per cent of these aggrieved women felt that they are not feeling protected at workplace. The law provi?des various duties of the emp?loyer, including providing safe working environment at the workplace, display at any co?nspicuous place in the wo?r?kplace the penal consequ?ences of sexual harassments, organise workshops and aw?a?reness programme at regul?ar intervals for sensitising em?ployees with the provisi?o?ns of the Act and orientation programmes for members of ICC. The law also provides th?at the employer should pr?o?vide necessary facilities to ICC for dealing with the co?m?plaint and conducting an in?quiry, treat sexual harassm?ent as misconduct under the service rules and initiate action for such misconduct. Employer should also mo?nitor the timely submission of reports by ICC and provide assistance to the woman for initiating action under IPC if she desires to do so. The pe?n?a?lty for the employer if he fai?ls to comply under the law in?cludes fine, which may extend to Rs 50,000.
(The writer is the global head of legal and chief data protection officer in a major IT company and is actively involved in many pro bono activities through Chennai Lawyers)