How Safe are Women in Unorganised Sector?

We know that Women’s employment opportunities have increased with Globalisation and concurrently sexual harassment at the workplace has surmised considerable aspect. The assault against women have been rising day by day and it badly affects the careers of thousands of women. It is not just sexual abuse but also mental abuse which the women face in their day to day life at the workplace. Workplace sexual harassment is a form of gender discrimination which violates a woman’s fundamental right to equality and right to life, guaranteed under Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution of India (“Constitution”).In order to prevent the sexual harassment at the workplace a legislative act, POSH (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) was enforced in the year 2013. It was passed in Lok Sabha on 3 September 2012 and in Rajya Sabha on 26 February 2013. It received the assent of the President of India and was published in the Gazette of India, Extraordinary, Part-II, Section-1, dated 23 April 2013 as Act No. 14 of 2013. The objective of ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013’ (‘POSH Act’) is to provide protection against sexual harassment of women at workplace and for the prevention and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment.

In 1992, 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 and it unveiled the hazards working women face in the workplace. The issue was taken up by Vishaka, a women’s welfare group that led public interest prosecution, ultimately resulting in the Guidelines. Thus Workplace sexual harassment in India, was for the very first time recognized by the Supreme Court of India in its landmark judgment of Vishaka v. State of Rajasthan 1997,(“Vishaka Judgment”), wherein the Supreme Court framed certain guidelines and issued directions to the Union of India to enact an appropriate law for combating workplace sexual harassment. One of the criticisms about Vishaka Guidelines was that it did not specifically address the sexual harassment faced by women in the unorganized sector. After several amendments to the original bill and Justice Verma committee’s recommendations, the provisions related to the unorganised sector were added. Section 2 (p) of the Act defines unorganized sector as an enterprise owned by individuals or self-employed workers and engaged in the production or sale of goods or providing service of any kind whatsoever, and where the enterprise employs workers, the number of such workers is less than ten. The POSH Act applies to both the organized and unorganized sectors in India. Organized sectors have a proper organisational structure, a defined employer and employee relationship so the employer and employee are perceived about the POSH act. As a result, preventive measures taken by employers help some extent to avoid the occurrence of sexual harassment cases.

The unorganised sector is a labour-intensive sector that includes those workers in small scale industries, street vendors, domestic helpers, coolies, masons and rag pickers. The Deloitte report titled “Empowering Women & Girls in India” disclosed that 95% or 195 million women are employed in the unorganised sector or in unpaid work. It is a fact that the women in the unorganized sector are more vulnerable than women working in the organized sector as majority of the women who are in the unorganised sector migrate to cities are from poor families. They become easy victims of exploitation because of their inexperience and lack of skill. Due to their illiteracy and lack of awareness of legislation these women face all forms of sexual assault. The other reasons for sexual harassment in the unorganised sector are the relationship between employer and employee which is not direct. Due to its loose organizational structure, ascertaining the accountability of the employer is not possible. The contract is made with a third party of agent and so the exploitation runs beyond the employer-employee relationship. Also for daily wage labourers and construction workers, the streets are their workplace. Streets do not come under any employer’s jurisdiction or often these workers do not have job security. In India, labourers are abundant and available at a very low cost. As a result, these women hesitate to report the issues as they have the fear of losing their job. Most of them are penniless and consequently their economic status is very low. Thus the “aggrieved women”(a woman of any age, whether employed or not, who alleges to have been subjected to any act of sexual harassment )have a choice to either endure continuous sexual harassment or leave their jobs without reporting the issues. The chairperson of the local committee created under the Prevention of Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2013, for the Mumbai City District said that between 2015 and 2018, they haven’t got a single complaint from the unorganised sector event though a lot of cases have happened. The other reasons for not reporting the harassment are the absence of any complaint mechanism at the workplace and fear of getting defamed.

A survey done by nonprofit Oxfam India along with Social and Rural Research Institute found that labourers, domestic workers and women working in small-scale manufacturing were more exposed to sexual harassment. .A comprehensive report on the sexual harassment Karnataka’s women garment factory workers face by non-profit Sisters For Change revealed several disturbing statistics, one being that one in seven has either been raped or forced to commit a sexual act. Abuse and sexual harassment of women garment workers, it found, is routine. A campaign conducted by Martha Farrell Foundation New Delhi, on 17th May 2018 for 60 women on prevention of sexual harassment of women workers in the unorganised sector found that sexual harassment is a routine occurrence where the participants are sacred and so unaware about their legal rights against sexual harassment. The foundation also found that out of 712 districts in India, only 107 have constituted an LC(Local Committee). The members and the representatives of the LC are unaware of their roles and responsibilities and haven’t been provided with any forums or platforms to build their capacities. Hence It is time to address the issues and discuss the kind of policy reforms and institutional changes required for the emancipation and empowerment of the female workforce in the unorganised sector. It is now more than 6 years since the Act was passed whereas the Act has been able to enforce amenability in the formal sector to some extent but mechanisms to address issues of Sexual Harassment at Workplace for the unorganised sectors are dreadfully negligible. Thus there is an urgent need to appraise these issues to government and also create awareness among the women workforce in unorganised sectors about their legal rights against sexual harassment.

What can be done

  • Uncompromising action needs to be taken against the perpetrator on the sexual harassment of women workers in unorganised sectors
  • The criminal justice system should be more effective to deal with the cases relating to the exploitation of unorganised women workers and punishment should be very high in comparison to the degree of exploitation.
  • Women workers in the unorganized to form self-help groups for their protection.
  • Employers, Employees and ICC (Internal Complaint Committee) go through quality training in the area of POSH act and create awareness so that women workers in the unorganised sector can work with dignity.
  • Organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitizing women workers in unorganised sectors on the issues and implications of workplace sexual harassment
  • Organize orientation programmes for members of the LC(Local Committee) about their roles and responsibilities.