Sexual harassment at workplace - violence in disguise

By ZRG | Updated: Jan 03, 2014, 13:46 PM IST

Ankita Chakrabarty & Rashi Aditi Ghosh/Zee Research Group

Phaneesh Murthy’s sudden exit over undisclosed relationship with a subordinate has put the spotlight back on lack of uniformity in laws governing sexual harassment at workplace.

The laws on the controversial issue vary from country to country and company to company. Unlike India sexual harassment laws are gender neutral in most parts of the world.

Also, at several places companies tend to take a lenient view of relationship between two sexes if the employees are peers but are strict when it comes to a subordinate and senior employee relationship, as happens to be the situation in Murthy’s case.

The government here proactively brought about the new law into force early this year with many terming it as a “big legal breakthrough” ensuring safety of women at workplace. President Pranab Mukherjee on April 25, 2013 gave his assent to Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) law.

The law can lead to higher penalties and even cancellation of licence or registration to conduct business. The new law brings in its ambit even domestic workers and agriculture labour, employees in both organised and unorganised sectors.

With women power driving economies the world over, the focus on harassment has gained further currency. Post liberalization, India has a significant women workforce in the Banking, Financial Services and Insurance (BFSI) sector apart from the business process outsourcing industry.

Globally, the term "sexual harassment" first came into use in the late 1970s in the United States. The term`s origins are generally traced to a course on women and work taught by Lin Farley at Cornell University. In 1979, Catherine MacKinnon, a legal scholar from the United States, made the first argument that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by the Constitution and civil rights laws of the United States. Since then many international bodies, national legislatures and courts have prohibited sexual harassment but have not agreed on a universal definition of the term.

To recognize sexual harassment as a form of discrimination and violence against women many international bodies have formulated stringent laws. But the effort yet lacks uniformity.

The General Assembly Resolution 48/104 on the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union are the international initiatives that lay down appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all fields including sexual harassment.

Highlighting the issue of sexual harassment at workplace – an often subtle but disturbing form of aggression - Jane Hodges, ILO, director of the Bureau for Gender Equality, on March 6, 2013 said, “Sexual harassment and other forms of harassment and abuse – physical, verbal or psychological – bullying, mobbing, work-related stress and violence affect all professions and sectors and both women and men.”

Subsequently, many multinational companies make claims of having inducted zero tolerance gender neutral policies against sexual harassment at work place.

Generally MNCs refer to sexual harassment as an unwelcome conduct directed towards an employee because of his or her gender, which has the purpose or effect of interfering with the employee’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment. The other definition at some MNCs is based on a person’s sex or that is sex-based behaviour (except a consensual romantic relationship with another employee).

Traditionally, at majority of companies sexual harassment at workplace is symbolized as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual or otherwise offensive nature.

Commenting on the disturbing trend of sexual violence at workplace, Brent Wilton, Secretary-General of the International Organisation of Employers (IOE) – which claims to represent more than 150 business and employers federations around the world – on March 6, 2013 said, “Violence in the world of work is a human rights issue. An appropriate approach towards eliminating violence at work implies targeting the root causes of discriminatory practices and being cognizant of their many different regional, cultural and social contexts.”

The policies of Indian big listed companies against sexual harassment have been found to be generally in sync with global benchmarks. Most of the Indian companies follow a zero tolerance policy, and have checks and balances in place to prevent similar incidents.

Similarly, the BPO Association of India (BAI), which is a non-government, non-profit organization, gave certain dos and don’ts in regard to sexual harassment.

While the list of dos includes prompt investigation of all sexual harassment complaints, don’ts involve provoking the behaviour through dress, and office demeanor with other employees.

These measures have apparently yielded some dividends with the number of sexual harassment cases in India in 2011 observing a dip of 3.7 per cent over the previous year. While National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) recorded 9961 sexual harassment cases in 2010, such cases decreased to 8570 in 2011. Sexual harassment cases are clubbed alongside eve-teasing in NCRB report prepared annually by the Home Ministry.