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#WhatLawSays: Here’s what amounts to sexual harassment at workplace

In the second part of our series #WhatLawSays, we explain what, according to the Indian law, constitutes sexual harassment at the workplace.

sex and relationships Updated: Apr 27, 2017 07:35 IST
Abhinav Verma
Here is all that you need to know about sexual harassment at workplace.
Here is all that you need to know about sexual harassment at workplace.(Istock)

What do online entertainment web site founders Arunabh Kumar (Viral Fever), Suparn Pandey (Scoopwhoop) and filmmaker Vikas Bahl have in common? They all have been accused of sexually harassing their female employees. Often, there is not much clarity on where does the law stand in such cases. As the second part of the series, we talk about the legal implications of sexual harassment at workplace. We got in touch with Supreme Court lawyer Arnav Narain, who listed up relevant cases and legal guidelines for you.

Also read the first part of the series, where we focused on what the law says on the use of loudspeakers in religious places.

The Vishaka Guidelines - Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan, 1997

“Gender equality includes protection from sexual harassment and right to work with dignity, which is a universally recognized basic human right.” – Supreme Court of India (Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan, 1997)

Prior to the coming into force of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, the Supreme Court had in 1997 in the case of Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan recognised that civil and penal laws in India do not adequately provide for specific protection of women from sexual harassment in work places and that enactment of such legislation will take considerable time. Therefore, the Supreme Court had formulated guidelines for prevention of sexual harassment of women at work places. Some of the salient features are:

1) It’s the duty of the employer or other responsible persons in workplaces to prevent or deter the commission of acts of sexual harassment and provide the procedures for resolution, settlement or prosecution of acts of sexual harassment by taking all the steps required.

2) Employer shall initiate appropriate action in accordance with law by making a complaint with the appropriate authority.

3) Where such conduct amounts to misconduct in employment, appropriate disciplinary action should be initiated by the employer.

4) The employer should ensure that victims or witnesses are not victimised or discriminated against while dealing with complaints of sexual harassment.

5) Set up of a complaints committee headed by a woman, where not less than half of its member should also be women.

6) Create awareness about the rights of female employees.

The above guidelines were to have the force of law and the Supreme Court directed that the above guidelines would be strictly observed in all work places for the preservation and enforcement of the right to gender equality of the working women.

Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013

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.

1) Workplace has been defined under Section 2(o) of the Act, 2013 and includes not only departments, organisations under the government but also private sector, organisations and ventures.

2) Every employer is required to constitute an internal complaints committee at each office or branch with 10 or more employees. A district officer is required to constitute a local complaints committee at each district, and if required, even at the block level.

3) The complaints committees have the powers of civil courts for gathering evidence.

4) The complaints committees are required to provide conciliation before initiating an inquiry, if requested by the complainant.

5) Penalties have been prescribed for employers. Non-compliance with the provisions of the Act shall be punishable with a fine of up to `50,000. Repeated violations may lead to higher penalties and cancellation of license to conduct business.

International Conventions for the Protection of Rights of Women

Some of conventions held to protect the rights of women are:

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) is an international treaty adopted in 1979 (Art. 11)

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 (Art. 3)

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights is a multilateral treaty adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 December 1966 (Art. 3, Art. 7)

The lawyer’s Opinion

The implementation of the law on sexual harassment at workplace has forever been a question mark. While working women are shooting through all kinds of glass ceilings, almost daily, incidents of sexual harassment at workplaces are being reported. While an ambitious man is lauded, an ambitious woman is seen as a threat. We are becoming progressive only on paper and regressive in reality. Thus, many working women still feel uncomfortable around their peers, bosses. There is a complete lack of awareness among women too on the rights that they can exercise. Reporting cases on sexual harassment by women is still considered as prejudice, embarrassment and fear. This has to change. All employers at all workplaces must ensure a safe, healthy and conducive working environment. The law against sexual harassment must be implemented in a more aggressive and effective manner with greater sanctions for those who violate the law.

— Arnav Narain, advocate practicing in the Supreme Court of India and an expert on International Human Rights

Check this space for the last part of the series, #WhatLawSays about drinking in public places.