Women in the informal sector: insecure at homes, streets,construction sites

Capstone Legal Women Women

Number of registered cases of sexual assault are on the rise, experts suggest proper mental care for the victims and maintenance of data by the government.

By Upasana Banerjee

Bengaluru: Bharathi, a domestic worker of about 40 years old who is a mother to two daughters, 24 and 18, has been working as a maid for almost 15 years. In these years of her life she has changed her workplace (households) multiple times but every time the reason remains the same, the employer. She says: “The babus try to look into my cleavage when I am bending down to clean. Many times I complain to the wife but they only insult us, so now I don’t scream or complain; I just change my work place. But this seems like a never ending chain of abuse.”   

 Sexual harassment at the workplace is widespread. But when we talk about workplace and domestic workers, it does not often go hand in hand. There is no clearly demarcated workplace or clear employer-employee relationship in this sector. Existing mechanisms to address workplace harassment fail to adequately deal with the complexities of women’s work in it. Women all around the world have faced instances of sexual harassment. In India, the framework for the Sexual Harassment at Workplace law was laid down in the landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan (1997).

In 1992, Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit woman who was a social worker employed with the Rural Development Programme of the Government of Rajasthan was gang raped. This highlighted the extents of sexual harassment incidents in India’s workplaces. It struck a chord with the nation and revealed the hazards working women face in the workplace. The Supreme Court framed guidelines and issued directions to the Union of India for a law to combat workplace sexual harassment.

The main intention of these guidelines was to provide a platform for redressal and grievance mechanisms against workplace sexual harassment. It was these guidelines that motivated the formation of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (POSH). The Act is very important as it discusses the various instances of sexual harassment and how a woman can complain against this kind of behavior. The 2013 act mandated employees to take steps to protect the female employees from any form of sexual harassment. By doing it, it widened the definition and scope of the workplace and the informal sector including the domestic workers

Before the introduction of the POSH Law, there was no statutory remedy that directly addressed workplace sexual harassment except the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The only sections under the Indian Penal Code that could be used for sexual harassment are under: Section 354 (Outraging the modesty of a woman) and Section 509 (Insulting the modesty of a woman).Women who were sexually harassed at the workplace had to go to the police and file a complaint.

But all these laws missed women who work in the informal sector.

According to data by India Spend, as many as 95 percent of India’s women workers are employed in the informal sector and find it difficult to access legal mechanisms to report sexual harassment at workplace.

Women rights activist and founder of Global Concern India Brinda Adige said “Sixty percent women in the informal sector have no awareness and no education and forty percent of them who are associated with self-help groups have better awareness levels. Out of these percentages only one percent goes for arbitration mainly out of the fear of threat and eviction from work.”

 “Our NGO weighs the pros and cons of working at a specific household. They use tactics to go to the police station so that these workers can lodge a complaint. Power talks a lot” she added.

Ashwini, a construction labourer aged 42 years who works along with her daughter-in-law at the construction site, often wondered why the manager looked at her in the same way that he looked at her 22 years old daughter-in-law. She said that she thought, she was as attractive as her young daughter-in-law, until her daughter-in-law pointed out how uncomfortable she felt during her working hours.

Sexual harassment complaints are on the rise in Karnataka

Women workers in such sectors have few or no means of grievance redressal to address workplace harassment. In case of Ashwini when a complaint was made to the recruiter who had a tie with the manager, the recruiter asked these women to either keep shut or leave the work. “This violates the right to livelihood and right to employment opportunities.” says Geeta Menon

In the formal sector especially in the fields of academia, entertainment and media industry in India during 2017-18, the popular rising of #MeToo movement made visible what had been long untalked about i.e. sexual harassment is an everyday occurrence in the lives of working women. Millions of women took to social media platforms to talk about their own experiences. The most recent case was the acquittal of journalist Priya Ramani in a defamation lawsuit filed by former editor and the then sitting Member of Parliament M J Akbar for accusing him of sexual harassment in 1993. If a well-educated professional had to go through a defamation suit just because she voiced her grievances, then what about those thousands of factory workers, domestic wor­­­kers, construction workers who are sexually assaulted and harassed on a daily basis. Moreover India is still seeing rising cases of sexual harassment at workplace out of which not even half gets formally registered. According to the data provided by the Karnataka State Commission for Women, cases are on the rise. Twenty cases have been reported in the year 2017-18 whereas twenty three cases in the following year, while thirty four cases were registered in the year 2019-2020.

Source: Karnataka State Commission for Women

All of these women are either supposed to go to the police station or Local Complaints Committee. LCC is a committee formed by every district officer in the district, to receive sexual harassment complaints for an organization where Internal Complaints Committee has not been formed because the work place constitutes less than ten workers. Veena Rai, one of the members of the Local Complaints Committee said: “Not all cases come up to the LCC even after it has been registered under the Women and Child Department. There are very few cases that are actually disposed of through proper legal procedures”.

There have been limited government efforts to enforce the law and close the gaps in mechanisms to protect women in the informal or unorganized sectors. There are millions of domestic workers, construction workers, street vendors whose complaints go unreported. As Veena Rai added, “Women and Child Development Ministry has a platform called She Box, where complaints are registered which goes straight to the respective District Commissioner’s Office (Bangalore). But the DC Office doesn’t work on a daily basis which further delays the redressal procedure. Therefore we often suggest that they come directly to the LCC.”

Apart from facing the brunts of sexual harassment, the tiring legal procedure seems to them even more intimidating and vexing. One such victim, Sumita, who was working as a domestic help said: “When I was harassed by the employer, I didn’t know where to go. I had no idea what LCC was; going to the police required a day of absence from the workplace which was often turned down.”

According to advocate and founder of Stree Jagruthi Samithi Geeta Menon, a number of women’s organizations went to the State Women and Child Ministry to find clarity on how the local complaints committee functions, who constitutes it? What defines a workplace? Who is an employer? But the ministry remained silent on such questions. She added, “These women who are working in the unorganized sector work hard for even a day’s meal, how can they be expected to find the local complaints committee, who are sitting far in some remote area in a district”.

The sexual harassment cases are registered and looked after by the Karnataka State Commission for Women, one of the case workers of the Commission Aishwarya M. said “We are organizing legal awareness workshops in the urban districts, and trying to convince the workers to lodge complaints more often”. But she also raised the issue that many of these workers don’t even want to lodge a complaint in the first place. If we try to solve the case, they tell us to leave them alone and not to interfere”. 

Another complicated issue is the role of the caste system and power in the hands of the authority. “The members of the LCC belong to the higher caste and most of the times their plea goes unheard or the employer gets away with the most minimal penalty.” says Geeta Menon. The entire process of the LCC is biased, it’s wrong at the grass root level. According to a report by the National Commission for Enterprise in the unorganized sector, in Bangalore, women belonging to the Scheduled Castes (SC) form 75 percent of domestic workers, 15 percent of Backward Classes (OBC), 8 per cent from Scheduled Tribes (ST) and the rest belonged to the general category.

Therefore it becomes explicit why power struggle talks so much during cases of sexual harassment. The caste hierarchy doesn’t allow these women to take the path of justice. “Patriarchal structure is very strong” says Elizabeth Devi Kh. Founding member Community for Social Change and Development. Women are always twice tortured. They face both internal and external exploitation; one in the hands of their alcoholic husband and the other exploitation of their dignity at their workplaces. Covid-19 has added to their misery even more. Poverty has deepened and triggered more violence. She added, “Cases of domestic violence increased during the pandemic. Confined living spaces and reduced earning capacity have made their lives miserable.”

They have taken other odd jobs. At the workplace, now they are working for half the money. Brinda Adige, a women rights activist and founder of Global Concern India said, “Women were in terrible situations at times, they couldn’t get out of their homes. So we asked them to wear big red bindis which would signify a red alert to call the police”. Violence at during this time has also increased sexual abuse on children. Juvenile Justice Board reports of data received from various help lines for women and children indicating that there has been an increase in domestic violence and sexual attacks on women and children during the pandemic; which has further given rise in a number of cases of children in conflict with the law.

 “A lot of times police either dismiss them by asking them to resolve the issue between the employer and the worker or at times they become the exploiter.” added Elizabeth Devi Kh. This is often seen in the case of street vendors that largely fall into the unorganized sector. They frequently face harassment at the hands of the police and the municipal authorities, who perceive them as illegal or as “encroachers”. Catcalls, leering, groping, stalking, public masturbation, and anti-women comments are demeaning, annoying, and sometimes threatening and scary. Very often incidents and experiences of street harassment are silenced and dismissed as a trivial annoyance, or even portrayed as a “compliment”. So even if they file a complaint against any customer for such harassment it’s often taken lightly.

One of the street vendors Kamala, who sells flowers at a standalone shop said: “there are a few customers who try to come near me or touch me in the guise of selecting the best of flowers and garlands, when I understand their motive, I start screaming or speaking loudly to catch attention towards me. But it’s a daily occurrence now”.

One of the major problems of sexual harassment cases in the unorganized sector is that they often go unreported. Due to the vagueness about the functioning of the LCC, the Martha Farrell Foundation member Nandita Pradhan Bhatt said, “Isn’t the lack of proper data on harassment cases a bigger proof to point out the lacunae in the redressal system?” Most of the districts don’t even form an LCC even after orders from the government, she added.

In response to an RTI application filed by Martha Farrell Foundation, that works for gender-just society, was informed that, out of 655 districts in the country, 29 percent replied that they have formed the LCCs. Fifteen percent of the  districts have still not formed the LCC (though, the State Government of Bihar claimed that they are in the process of constituting LCs in 38 districts of the state) and 56 percent of the districts chose not to respond to the RTI query.  Of these 29 percent of the districts that replied that they have constituted a LC, only 16 percent of them replied in an affirmative, that they have a female Chairperson. One percent of them did not have a female chairperson and the rest of the four districts, one each in Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and two in Punjab have male Chairpersons.

One of the main reasons that survivors of sexual harassment do not talk about their experiences is due to their economic vulnerability and the fact that they may lose their livelihood.

As one of the young domestic workers put it, “They keep staring. They say Amma you do that work and then they ogle at us”. Another domestic worker complained, “They ogle at our bodies in a way that makes us uncomfortable. When we are sweeping, they stare at us”.

The fear of social ostracism often discourages victims from talking about instances of being sexually harassed. Victims are subjected to hostility and blamed for the incident by family members, members of workers’ groups and the union.

According to Everyday Resistance, a study by Alternative Law Forum many expressed fear and mistrust in the police with regard to complaints of sexual harassment and feels that they would be discriminated against based on their economic class, gender or profession by the police. Distrust in the police is further aggravated in instances like when the police refused to file a First Information Report (FIR) in the absence of the employer who was the accused.

Another reason is the lack of awareness of the act; none of them were aware of the SH Act, the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) or where the LCC could be found. Ideally, the police should help victims of sexual harassment and explore the option of filing a complaint with the LCC.

As recommended by social workers, activists and lawyers: some form of community center should be there in each of the wards, recognition of the violence hurting the women’s mental and physical health and to provide them with  proper counseling through state facilities or by private initiatives. Geeta Menon suggested that there should be an unbiased working of the Local Complaints Committee and awareness workshops on the same. Whereas the LCC member Veena Rai suggested that there should be funds for the better and regular working of the committee. Most importantly, recognising the informal sector and ensuring their safety should be of prime significance. Their cry for security measures often gets lost amidst the loud voices of the employers. Organisations like Human Rights Watch in its reports has recommended time and again to collate and analyse data across all work sectors for better implementation of laws and inclusiveness of all women under its umbrella.



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