Sexual harassment of women at workplace is an issue of serious concern that requires immediate attention from authorities and amounts to the violation of women's right to equality, life and liberty, which are some of the basic rights of every citizen of India, guaranteed under the Constitution of India. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines defines the term sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment, when this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment”. It is immensely disturbing to list down the kinds of harassment that women encounter ranfing from verbal harassment to groping to rape. Although the same is a socio-economic issue that persists in every country in some or the other form, it is sad that, such cases are sometimes not treated the way they ought to be. This misconduct by the employers or the co-employees with any woman at the workplace creates a precarious and hostile setting for her to carry out her work efficiently and meticulously. It discourages women to take up jobs, participate in work, which ditectly affects their social and economic empowerment and the goal of inclusive growth. With an alarming rise in the incidents of sexual harassment at the workplace, the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013, was passed. This is the primary law that deals with the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace and it aims at providing a safe and secure environment for women at workplace.
The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 was concieved by the Supreme Court, in Vishaka Judgment .The requirement of such a legislation was inevitable as observed by the apex Court in this judgement. As there was no law existent at that time, that clearly provided measures to check the evils of sexual harassment of working women, the Supreme Court, in exercise of power available under Article 32 of the Constitution, formulated guidelines that should be followed at all workplaces or institutions, until a legislation is enacted for the purpose. The Supreme Court incorporated basic principles of human rights enshrined in Constitution of India under Article 14, 15, 19(1)(g) and 21, and provisions of Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which has been ratified in 1993 by the Government of India. The guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court were to be equated to the law declared under Article 141 of the Constitution.
BRIEF ANALYSIS OF THE POSH ACT AND RULES
After 16 years of Vishaka, The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act 2013 ("the Act") was enacted with the objective to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace3 and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment and for matter connected therewith or incidental thereto. But it is interesting to note that, the origin of the POSH Act lies in the infamous case of a woman named Bhanwari Devi who belonged to a Bahunjan Samithi. She was raped by a group of men belonging to the upper caste as she tried to bring into stop a child marriage that was taking place as she was a Sathin worker. A Sathin worker is a grassroot worker who works for the rights and betterment of women , a group found in Rajasthan. Unfortunately, she couldn’t be served the justice but she paved the way for the Supreme Court to frame the guidelines in the Vishaka case.
The Act defines sexual harassment as unwelcome acts or behavior (whether directly or by implication) namely, physical contact and advances, a demand or request for sexual favors, making sexually colored remarks, showing pornography, any other unwelcome physical, verbal or non-verbal conduct of sexual nature4. Any act of unwelcome and sexual nature shall be considered as sexual harassment. The Delhi High Court in Shanta Kumar vs CSIR held that "undoubtedly, physical contact or advances would constitute sexual harassment provided such physical contact is a part of the sexually determined behaviour. ...a physical contact which has no undertone of a sexual nature and is not occasioned by the gender of the complainant may not necessarily amount to sexual harassment."5
The Act also provides the circumstances under which an act may amount to sexual harassment. These are:
(i) implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment; or
(ii) implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in her employment ; or
(iii) implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status; or
(iv) interference with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work
environment for her; or
(v) humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety.6
The most striking feature of this Act is that it envisions the creating of Internal Complaints Committee at every office of the organisation or institution, having more than 10 employees, to hear and redress complaints pertaining to sexual harassment7. Chapter III of this Act is dedicated entirely for the constitution of such Local Committees. Where the number of employees are less than 10, the Act provide for setting up of Local Committee in every district by the District Officer.8 The committee while inquiring into such complaint shall have the same power as vested in a civil court. The Delhi High Court in its judgment in Ruchika Singh Chhabra vs M/s Air France India and Anr. ".directed that the ICC should be constituted in strict compliance with the requirements under law...".9
An aggrieved woman can file a written complaint to ICC/LC from three months from the date of the incident and in case of series of such incidents within three months from the last such incident. However, any delay in filing the complaint can be condoned by the committee upto further three months. In case of physical or mental incapability of the aggrieved woman, her legal heirs or such other person as described in Rule 6 of The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 ("the Rules") may make a complaint.
On receiving the complaint the committee, before initiating an inquiry, may take steps to settle the matter between her and the respondent through conciliation and when a settlement is arrived no further inquiry is conducted. If the conciliation fails or any term of the settlement arrived at has not been complied with by the respondent, the committee shall proceed further with the inquiry.10
In the case of a domestic worker, , if prima facie case exists, the Local Committee shall forward the complaint to the police, within a period of seven days for registering the case under Section 509 of Indian Penal Code or any other relevant provisions of the said Code where applicable.
Where both the parties are employees, the principle of natural justice is followed and both the parties are heard and opportunity is given to make representations against the findings of the committee. For the purpose of making an inquiry, the committee shall have the same powers as are vested in a civil court. The committee has to complete the inquiry within a period of 90 days.11 The committee can give certain interim reliefs to the aggrieved woman during the pendency of the inquiry.12
The committee within 10 days after completion of the inquiry shall provide the report of its findings to the employer/District Officer and the concerned parties. When the allegation against the respondent has been proved the committee shall recommend the employer/District Officer to take action for sexual harassment as misconduct in accordance with provisions of service rules or where no such rules have been made, as prescribed in Rule 9 of the Rules and to pay such sum to the aggrieved woman as it consider appropriate, in accordance with the provisions of section 15, from the salary of the respondent. The employer/District Officer shall act upon the recommendations within 60 days. 13
In case of filing of false or malicious complaint or false evidence the committee may recommend to the employer or District Officer to take action in accordance with the provisions of service rules or where no such service rules exist, in such manner as prescribed in Rule 10 of the Rules.14
An appeal15 can be filed against the recommendations made by the committee before the court or tribunal, within 90 days from the recommendations, in accordance with service rules and in absence of service rules, to the Appellate Authority under Section 2 of the Industrial Employment (Standing Orders) Act, 194616.
There is a prohibition on publication of identity of the aggrieved woman, respondent, witnesses, contents of the complaint, inquiry proceedings or recommendations of the committee, except information regarding the justice secured to any victim of sexual harassment17. In contravention of Section 16 of the Act, such person shall be liable for penalty in accordance with service rules and in absence of service rules, in accordance with Rule 12.
The Act lays down certain duties of the employer and District Officer under Section 19 and 20 respectively such as creating awareness on sexual harassment at workplace, sensitize the employees, assist the complaints committee in conducting the inquiry, act upon recommendations of the committee, monitor timely submissions of reports of the committee etc.
The non compliance of the provisions of the Act by the employer may result in fine which may extend to fifty thousand rupees and can also lead to cancellation of his license or withdrawal, or non-renewal, or approval, or cancellation of the registration, as the case may be18.
Even though the Act is in force since 2013, the awareness regarding consequences of sexual harassment and its redressal against the same is limited. The effective implementation of POSH Act not only requires creating an environment where women can speak up about their grievances without fear and get justice but sensitization of men towards treatment of women at workplace is equally necessary.
One of the most saddening fact is that despite, the required laws with an aim to curb sexual harassment being existent in our country, surveys explicitly say that only less than one in five people files a formal report or complaint regarding the harassment and also that at most of the times, this one person amongst the five, are tagged as trouble-makers , are coerced to resign from their jobs, ignored on purpose. All these are mere tactics employed by the accussed and the culprits to prevent anyone from going against them. Therefore, not only do we require stringent laws and guidelines, but a surveillance system to inspect that everything goes as per the procedure, and that the complaint reaches to the concerned authorities. Women who are hesitant to come forward and voice out their concerns should have a medium to do so, very easily, without having to think about the same. Therefore, not only do we require the laws to be on place and printed on pages, but we need them to be implemented.
written by Abhay Choudhary M, 3rd Year BA-LLB, School of Legal Studies, Reva University, Bangalore.