I find it disappointing to be writing this story in 2021, as this is something that should have been eradicated out a long time ago, but sadly, sexual harassment in the workplace still exists and is a global business issue. When you speak to women in the workplace, a high percentage of them, irrespective of their age, background or where they live, they will have a story to tell. In 2020, sexual harassment and the use of non-disclosure agreements was one of the most significant employment law issues internationally, which is unacceptable. It is clear, from the continuous headlines that we read, that we need to create a zero-tolerance culture around sexual harassment.
Trying to tackle this issue, in 2013 India passed the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, popularly known as the PoSH Act, to protect workers in both formal and informal sectors, including domestic workers. The law was a significant legislative advance. It requires employers to prevent sexual harassment and respond to complaints in work-related activities, whether in an office, field visits, or on transportation. The government is also responsible for developing training and educational materials, raising awareness, and monitoring implementation of the law, including tracking data on sexual harassment cases.
Shocking Data Reveals
However, not a lot has progressed since 2013 and Human Rights Watch in its 2020 report, found that the law has been poorly enforced, and that women face many obstacles when they report harassment. Ranging from stigma, to fear of reprisals and a lack of trust in systems that are supposed to provide protection. While, the research arm of the Economic Times, known as ETIG Analysis, disturbingly revealed that among India’s Nifty companies (a benchmark of the Indian stock market index that represents the weighted average of 50 of the largest Indian companies), that those companies with the highest number of sexual harassment complaints, were organisations with better diversity ratios, such as IT giants – Wipro, Tata Consultancy Services and Infosys, where more than one-third of employees are women.
Ironically, companies with the high number of sexual harassment complaints also often have high ESG (environmental, social and governance) scores. The adoption of ESG practices and policies by corporations are intended to have a positive influence on the world! Where companies looked at ways to operate in ways that enhances society and the environment, instead of contributing negatively to them. ESG provide quantifiable indicators (including sustainable, ethical and corporate governance issues such as managing the company’s carbon footprint and making sure there are systems in place) to measure accountability.
Moreover, companies with ESGs publish data to show how they treat their staff, manage supply chains, respond to climate change, increase diversity and inclusion, and build community links. So, it is disappointing to find that Wipro, which has an ESG score of 59 according to Bloomberg findings, also has the highest number of complaints. Similarly, the same is true of Dr Reddy’s Labs with the highest complaints in the pharma sector, yet has an ESG score of 58. What this shows that there’s an urgent need for the work culture to change, with their attitudes towards female colleagues.
Post-Covid, the harassment has turned online, where research shows instances range from making repeated friend requests on social media platforms and sending objectionable text messages to calling at unusual hours under the pretext of official purpose and sharing inappropriate images or sexist messages on office team groups.
The Fight By Domestic Workers
Critically, the PoSH law has especially failed women in the informal sector, most of whom come from socially and economically marginalised communities and face additional barriers to justice. Most Indian women are employed in the informal sector. As a result, this January, nearly 3,000 domestic workers in India mailed postcards to Smriti Irani, India’s minister in charge of women and child development. The postcards, simply but powerfully said, “As a woman domestic worker, I want a safe workplace.”
Domestic workers are especially at risk due to their isolation in private homes and their exclusion from many key labour protections. This sexual harassment law currently denies them a civil remedy guaranteed to other workers, requiring local committees to refer the case to the police. But studies show that women often face humiliation, mistrust and lack of assistance at police stations when they report sexual violence, making most reluctant to bring a complaint. Domestic workers want the law changed and has been the mission of their postcard campaign. They want the same access to justice through the local committees as other workers. The Indian government has demonstrated a willingness to address the issue.
Pushing this conversation forward, India CSR Network has launched the India PoSH Awards 2021 for the first time, to acknowledge those organisations that are making real progress, and creating safe, equal workplace environments for women. These Awards will promote the success of the organisations that have been proactive and innovative towards preventing sexual harassment. The deadline for nominations is 15 April 2021.
All women in the workplace deserve to feel safe in their working environment.
(Sangeeta Waldron, Founder, Serendipity PR & Media. Author of Corporate Social Responsibility Is Not Public Relations, published by LID Business Media.)
Sangeeta Waldron’s new book CORPORATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY IS NOT PUBLIC RELATIONS Is Available at Amazon India