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‘Companies reluctant to implement sexual harassment law’

In an interview with SHOMA PATNAIK, Advocate Vaishali Bhagwat explains why companies are hesitant to implement the law for prevention of sexual harassment of women and how an atmosphere conducive to handling complaints is necessary for successful implementation. Adv Bhagwat is the head of Pune-based law firm V P Shintre & Associates. She is on the ICC of several blue-chip companies like Cummins and Sandvik Asia and is also a specialist in Employment Law. Recently, GCCI’s IR and HR Committee organised a seminar on the issue inviting Adv Bhagwat as faculty

How aware are employers in general of the 2013 Act and the need to have ICC? 

The awareness is pretty low and there are several reasons for it. Lack of information is one of the reasons and also a certain resistance among industries in constituting a committee. Companies are worried that responding to a compliant will involve monetary compensation to the aggrieved female employee. In some instances, education institutions or hospitals want to set up an internal committee but do not know how to go about it or do it effectively. As such companies have numerous anxieties with regard to executing the Act. On the positive side, awareness is improving mainly because having ICC is legally mandatory.


How can awareness be improved?

Trade bodies such as CII or the chambers of commerce can play an important role in awareness. In Pune, for instance, the Mahratta Chamber Of Commerce Industries and Agriculture has taken the initiative in educating members of going about things. It also provides training for forming ICC. Industrial forums in my opinion can play a big role in improving understanding. The other way is statutory where company lawyers and auditors advice. It is mandatory to mention in the annual report that the company is compliant and the auditors have to do so. The annual report must mention the members of the committee, how many cases it has handled, findings, etc, while keeping intact the confidentiality of the complainant.


Does ICC involve expenditure for a company?

Not expenditure, but the sitting fee of the external member has to be paid. And it is advisable to take a member with certain maturity of either legal background or a NGO.


Please brief us on the formation of ICC.

The law recommends a committee with at least four members of which one should be non-employee. The committee should comprise a presiding officer who is a senior official from within the company and also a woman. Two members must be employees, although not necessarily women. The external member has to be either a lawyer or an NGO. One half of the committee should be women. I always recommend having odd members for the ICC so that there is no deadlock on the decision. But that is just a suggestion. The law does not say odd numbers. But the external member has to be either a lawyer or social worker with five years of experience.


How far does India lag vis-à-vis other countries in anti-sexual harassment legislation?

We got the legislation very late, only in 2013. India was signatory to the convention of elimination of all forms of discrimination against women in 1993 when other countries had done it many years before. But better late than never is my opinion. Now we must work at its implementation. It may happen that a women employee wants to complain but the company is discouraging it. Also, a change in mindset is needed because sexual harassment could be considered a stigma for the person facing it. Because of the feeling of losing reputation a woman may not come forward to complain. Just because there is a law it does not mean that women are comfortable talking about the problem. The company must create conducive atmosphere where a lady by complaining does not feel isolated.


Goan industry is largely made up of MSMEs and enterprises that are mostly in the services sector like department stores, casinos, hotels, etc. Does it make it difficult for application of the law and setting up ICC?

No, why should it? Every class of industry comes with its own set of challenges and ICC members should be mature enough to handle it. Overall implementation should not be a problem in any state.


But who is the enforcing authority for the Act?

The factory inspector in my opinion is the authority for ensuring compliance.

A ground level check in Goa reveals that many companies do have ICC but employees do not know about it.

Under law it is mandatory that a company has to be a policy where the presence of ICC is publicized effectively. The existence of an internal committee, names of members must be displayed prominently on the notice board. The HR department must inform employees through circulars.


In many cases committees exist but only in name. Is there a need to make them responsive and how?

Of course! The law requires that you conduct training programmes and also sensitise employees. The ICC members themselves should attend training and participate in forums. Sometimes, ICC members themselves are worried about liability but they must work confidently.


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