When working class women face sexual harassment at the workplace, what redressal mechanisms are available – and do they work?

When working class women say Me Too it becomes a question of livelihoodImage for representation.
news Me Too Sunday, November 04, 2018 - 12:00

“I was sexually harassed by a man in a house that I used to work in,” said Meera*, a domestic worker in one of Bengaluru’s posh suburbs. “When I complained to his wife, she told me to ignore it. When I insisted that she inquire into it, she asked me not to come to work from the next day,” she said. Meera’s story is just one of many instances where domestic workers – and working class women in general – saying ‘Me Too’ has led to loss of livelihoods.

As the second wave of ‘Me Too’ in India has brought into focus sexual harassment at white collar workplaces – and important question to ask is, what happens when the workplace is a middle class or upper middle class home in a city? When education, white collar employees ask for redressal mechanisms at their workplaces, are they at the same time thinking about what their own employees go through, at their homes? On Saturday, around 50 working class women – garment factory workers, domestic workers, sanitation workers, etc – gathered in solidarity at Kannada Bhavan in Bengaluru’s JC Road. The ‘#MeToo Working Class Women Share’ event saw women sharing their stories of harassment and violation, and focussed on several issues that they face on an everyday basis – but saying ‘Me Too’ is made much more difficult by their class and caste location.

The event was organised by Garment And Textile Workers Union (GATWU), Stree Jagruti Samiti, BBMP Guttige Pourakarmikara Sangha and KSRTC BMTC NEKRTC NWKRTC Workers Federation. And one of the demands placed in the event, that found unanimous support, was the formation of a complaints redressal committee in gated communities where sexual harassment of domestic workers is a daily affair.

ICCs for apartment complexes

“Raping minor girls who work in houses is so common that there are many examples of people doing it, killing those girls and disposing off the body within their own compounds,” said Geeta, a member of the Domestic Workers Union. “Our women, leave their own house work, their own children, and go to big apartment complexes and work. They don't have security or safety there,” she said.

Geeta pointed to the irony that while the legal framework around workplace sexual harassment in India owes a lot to Bhanwari Devi – a working class, Dalit woman who was gang raped by upper caste men for daring to do her job – neither the Vishaka guidelines nor the subsequent Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act has done much for working class women on the ground.

“We are pressing for apartment complexes to form a complaints committee to address issues of sexual harassment faced by domestic workers,” she said.

‘Police don’t take us seriously’

The need for committees to redress sexual harassment was stressed on, also because the police don’t take complaints of working class women seriously, said the participants.

Arya*, who works in a garment production unit in Bengaluru, said that the police are not cooperative most of the time. “When we go to the police to file a complaint about the sexual harassment faced by us at the workplace, they either normalise it and say that it is common and hence we have to ignore it, or they pass sexually coloured innuendos at us and laugh,” she said.

“Law has made it mandatory to have an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) to hear sexual harassment complaints in factories and companies. The women workers in garment factories usually know every committee in the organisation, but when asked about ICC, they are caught unawares. It means that not enough awareness is given to the women workers in the factories about a committee that was created primarily for these women,” said Madeena from GATWU.

Safety vs profit?

Priya* who works in BMTC was in tears as she re-lived her trauma of being at the receiving end of inappropriate behaviour from senior officials, and from passengers alike.

“In BMTC, lady conductors suffer harassment every day when they are issuing tickets, or even moving inside the bus to just carry out their duties. Even if she is very brave she can't do anything about it. She has a bag with cash and a ticket machine and cannot afford to act brave. If cash gets lost in her pursuit of safety, she will have to put the missing cash from her own pocket,” she lamented, highlighting the state of women who work in BMTC.

‘Gaps in the legal framework’

Maitreyi Krishnan, a lawyer working extensively in the domain of gender laws stated that though a law to address sexual harassment in workplace is present, it has a lot of gaps which must be attended to.

“Vishaka guidelines are there for all the affected women to seek justice, but how well is it working? According to rules that are in place, the government is supposed to review the actions taken by each and every organisation that has an ICC and prepare a report on the data. The government has not done that. Social audits must be done in garment production units to check if an ICC exists and if it is working like it is supposed to,” she said.

The government must be made accountable, she added.

*Names changed.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.