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Perks at a price

There is need for a systemic change, one that ensures dignity for women employees in addition to their safety and security, writes Kumkum Chadha.

india Updated: Feb 12, 2009 22:52 IST
Kumkum Chadha

Gauri Sharma was the hostess on duty in the executive class of the Amritsar-Delhi Shatabdi Express last week. The ruckus was over soup and bread. No one had a problem with either the food or the staff till one passenger threw a fit. He summoned her, shouted at her and drove her to tears. Sharma kept on apologising. It was her gentle demeanour that may have emboldened the passenger. Nobody intervened. At one point, some passengers came up and launched an instant ‘signature campaign’ to set the record straight.

Yet again, this was just a case of an irate passenger playing god and a helpless hostess profusely apologising to him. His USP: he’s a passenger who thinks that by paying for the journey he also has the right to humiliate employees. Her dilemma: a complaint would mean a red mark on her CV.

This isn’t a stray incident. Women employees, particularly in the service and hospitality sectors, have been regular victims of customer misbehaviour. Volumes have been written about politicians and other VIPs making an employee feel like dirt. Perhaps it’s a problem peculiar to the male Indian psyche: see a woman out of the house — particularly a confident and efficient one — find fault with her and use your position of advantage to bully her. This translates, down the socio-economic ladder, into cases of physical violence.

While there’s a hue and cry about the attack on women in a Mangalore bar, people are yet to raise their voice for women employees who often go through hell at their workplace, sometimes on an almost daily basis. Indignity seems to be built into their terms of contract. They suffer in silence with no one to raise a voice for them. No one’s too keen to hear their side of the story. All that stares them in the face — and their bosses — are irate sentences in the complaint book. In the passenger versus employee deadlock, it’s the employee who’s always held accountable.

It is here that social activists, women’s groups and government bodies like the National Commission for Women need to step in. Instead of knee-jerk reactions to one-off incidents, they would do well to seek a systemic change: one that ensures dignity for women employees in addition to their safety and security. Of course, reams of paper have been wasted on status reports.

If authorities are to be believed, women employees are not only well looked after but they also enjoy special privileges — leave benefits, for instance — denied to their male counterparts. But this is all on paper. The employee status of a woman ensures a salary, but often at the cost of her self-respect. And worst of all, there is no mechanism that offers a levelplaying field.

Will the Renuka Chowdhurys and Girija Vyases please wake up and shift the focus from media-centric issues to real problems facing today’s working women?