With a 'Legal Cell' on Twitter, Ungender aids women seeking information about workplace laws, harassment redressal

Ungender, an organisation that has been working on the implementation of the anti-sexual harassment act and other gender-centric laws at the workplace, is offering counselling on its Twitter account. Managing partner Pallavi Pareek outlines the ways in which women are discriminated against at the workplace, and why top leadership should be more empathetic to those who raise complaints

Neerja Deodhar April 11, 2020 09:53:51 IST
With a 'Legal Cell' on Twitter, Ungender aids women seeking information about workplace laws, harassment redressal

The second wave of the #MeToo movement in India was revelatory in many ways. It showed how muddled Indian society’s understanding of consent currently is, as well as how deep-rooted and widespread harassment and abuse are. Through individual articulations of pain, an avenue was created where conversations about violence and trauma as systemic issues could be had. Alongside stories of a more personal nature – relating to friends, acquaintances and partners – there was also an outpouring of accounts related to sexual harassment at the workplace. In some cases, there were multiple accounts involving the same company.

Many employers neither condoned such behaviour, nor did they create an environment that made it easy for women to report it. It underlined how companies aren’t adhering to the pre-existing Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) (PoSH) Act, as well as how many of them don’t have internal policies on tackling the problem. And in cases where such policies did exist, it wasn’t uncommon for employees to be unaware of them.

Two years on, and in the midst of a country-wide lockdown to tackle the coronavirus outbreak in India, Ungender Legal Advisory has begun an online Legal Cell on Twitter, through which it is answering queries about women’s rights at the workplace.

An organisation which has six years of experience working on this area, Ungender decided to offer counselling when it began receiving standalone pleas of help, seeking assistance in understanding nuances of the law, during the lockdown. “We noticed that with everyone stuck indoors, the feeling of helplessness was looming, and this prompted us to utilise our resources to extend our help in understanding the legal recourse people can take while being at home, or even generally. This had to be pro bono, because even if we are a for-profit organisation, our aim is to help each individual to understand gender-centric laws at the workplace," says managing partner Pallavi Pareek. The Cell is currently headed by Supreme Court advocate and Ungender member Suruchi Kumar, who answers the questions, which can be submitted anonymously through a form.

Its Legal Cell has received queries about a number of aspects: emotional and mental abuse at the workplace, understanding the procedure of filing a complaint about harassment and what follows it, gender-based discrimination that manifests in decisions about hiring, transfers and dismissals. Mothers, especially, write in with doubts about creche facilities and leave. Most individuals are either mid-dispute or want to initiate disputes, or are seeking recourse for friends and relatives.

Are the complaints raised related to lapses in companies’ policies, or rather the way these policies and the law are being implemented by employers? Pallavi says they span both categories. “For instance when we received a question pertaining to transportation facilities at the workplace for women working in night shifts, the employee was receiving a reimbursement for taking a cab rather than the facility being provided by employer itself. When the employee confronted her company, she was told the law is vague and that she should be grateful reimbursement is being provided. The company's approach was wrong," Suruchi explains.

With a Legal Cell on Twitter Ungender aids women seeking information about workplace laws harassment redressal

Representational image. AFP

In Karnataka and Maharashtra, which are home to IT and service sector companies whose employees work round the clock, the states have made it mandatory for employers to provide transportation, not just reimbursement. This is also true of Delhi and Gurugram, Pallavi says, where the district authorities (under the mandate of the Labour Law compliance) have issued notifications allowing companies to engage female employees at night only if their safety is accounted for. “This includes a vetted transportation facility… [The inability to provide this] is not just a lapse in the company policy, but also a lapse in implementing and compliance of the law,” she explains.

Alongside those who are queer and differently abled, women are among the most vulnerable to unequal treatment and discrimination at the workplace. Pallavi says that this is especially true of mothers, expectant mothers and women who are about to get married. “Somehow, companies have different responses to men and women going through normal phases of life, such as marriage and family planning, while having a job. While men are given wedding leave easily and their hiring, promotions and transfers are not affected by their marital status, women's prospects can be. In the eyes of those in management, a married woman or a mother is a weaker resource,” she explains.

Though success has been made at the legislative level to protect some vulnerable groups, the implementation of legislation and welfare schemes is often either compromised or wholly absent. Pallavi draws upon the example of Ungender’s endeavour to compile the details of district officers, local committees and nodal officers at the village and taluka level – authorities who are needed to tackle sexual harassment at the workplace. An astonishingly low level of authority appointment – a meagre 10 percent – was found across India. Pallavi filed a PIL in the Supreme Court, towards the appointment of these authorities and committees.

“Since then, various recommendations have been made to the Ministry of Women and Child Development on how this law should be implemented at the ground level. In August 2018, when this compliance was made part of the Director's Report under the Companies Act, it was a landmark moment, as it turned a fine amounting to a mere Rs 50,000 to an astounding Rs 50 lakh under the director's obligations,” she says.

I ask Pallavi about the impact the #MeToo movement has had on India’s workplace culture. “In the 2019 financial year, BSE 100 companies saw a 14 percent rise in sexual harassment complaints. A year before that, according to the Ministry of Women and Child Development data released in Parliament, there was a 54 percent rise in sexual harassment at workplaces between the years 2014 and 2017. The 2019 India Inc figures are indicative of the fact that the #MeToo movement gave cause to companies to implement their PoSH policies, often perceived as something to be brought out of the freezer when there’s a complaint, but otherwise forgotten,” she remarks.

Additionally, she notes a boost in companies looking to review their policies, but the reason to do so isn’t always empathetic or altruistic. It could be driven by the fear of being found inadequate and being socially shamed.

#MeToo has created a space for women to articulate their trauma, Pallavi says, but they can often be let down by their companies’ approach to tackling harassment, as well as the manner in which complaints are redressed. “While the movement has empowered a section of women to talk about the prevalence of the problem, a large number of women still do not benefit from the laws that are supposed to protect them, mainly due to the enormous gaps in power and privilege,” she opines.

Many are also not made aware of their rights. Considering this, how can individuals better educate themselves about employment-related laws? Pallavi’s advice is, read extensively. Vast data is available online and offline, which explains Indian employment laws in simple terms. Many legal organisations also have websites which host ongoing debates and commentary on the subject.

The area where much progress is yet to be achieved is offering empathy to those who raise complaints. “Empathy, with regards to an individual experience of a workplace, works best when it flows from top to down. Till the top leadership does not change its mindset, workplaces will continue to remain hostile to their women and the disadvantage will continue,” Pallavi concludes.

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