Sexual Harassment at Workplace

Context: Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH Act) is framed to provide protection to women at workplace against sexual harassment. The Act lays down rules for prevention and redressal of sexual harassment complaints by female workers.

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Salient features of the act

  • The act defines sexual harassment at the work place and creates a mechanism for redressal of complaints.  It also provides safeguards against false or malicious charges.
  • Every employer is required to constitute an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at each office with 10 or more employees.  The District Officer is required to constitute a Local Complaints Committee at each district, and if required at the block level.
  • The Complaints Committees have the powers of civil courts for gathering evidence.
  • Summoning and requiring the attendance of any person and interrogating him under oath; 
  •  Requirement to discover and produce documents.
  • The Complaints Committees are required to provide for conciliation before initiating an inquiry, if requested by the complainant. 
  • Non-compliance with the provisions of the Act shall be punishable with a fine of up to Rs 50,000.  Repeated violations may lead to higher penalties and cancellation of licence or registration to conduct business.  

Issues with the implementation of the act:

Legal shortcomings: 

  • Powers of civil court have been given to Internal Complaints Committee without specifying if members need to have a legal background.
  • Very modest fine of Rs 50,000 for non-compliance with the act is not enough deterrent.
  • Employer nominates members to Internal Complaints Committee (Conflict of Interest).
  • Prior internal inquiry and mandate for is misused promotes a culture of suppression of legitimate complaints to avoid the concerned establishment falling into disrepute.
  • Provision of conciliation in the act treats a criminal act as a civil dispute.
  • Law provides a punishing a woman if she is found to have filed a false or malicious complaint which is completely abusive provision intended to nullify the objective of law.
  • No data: Government maintains no centralised data relating to cases of harassment of women at workplaces, do not publicly compile and release data on how many companies and districts comply with guidelines and have committees, number of complaints filed and outcome of these complaints.
  • Local Complaints Committee dysfunctional: 95% of India’s women workers are employed in informal sector, but Local Committees to be formed under POSH Act have either been not formed in most districts or is not well publicised about leaving women in informal sector with no avenue to report.
  •  Social challenges: Women are discouraged to report sexual harassment incidents because of fear of being forced to withdraw from work by the family members.
  •  Digital divide: Women can also file complaints through Women and Child Development Ministry’s SHeBox, an online complaint platform for all women workers. But most India’s women workers find it difficult to access these redressal methods, especially SHeBox, given the low number of women who use the internet in India is low.

Way forward:

  • Empowering National Commission of Women with power to summon people and carry out independent investigations, impose fines, search and seizure in matters of sexual harassment at workplace.
  • Awareness about the act should be increased among females, added to school and college curriculums. Discussions should be organised around these issues in civil society.
  • Special attention should be given towards sectors where women are most vulnerable to sexual harassment. E.g., Garment sector, Domestic workers.
  • Law needs to be made gender neutral as sexual harassment challenges can be faced even by transgenders and males.
  • Nationwide audit of functioning of Internal Complaints Committee and Local Complaints Committee. Earmarking of budget for the functioning of Local Complaints Committee.

Changes proposed in law:

  1. Removal of penalty for false complaints.
  2. Removal of a need for conciliation between complainant and respondent.
  3. Formation of Local Complaints committee should be at block or tehsil level and not district level.
  4. Justice Verma committee noted that Internal Complaints Committee system should be replaced by Employment Tribunal, as dealing with such complaints in-house could discourage women from coming out.

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