Functioning of Internal Complaint Committees in Government Offices of Kerala

A study on the internal complaint committees constituted under the new sexual harassment against women at workplace act, 2013 in 15 government offices in Kerala finds that while committees get formed and meet intermittently, the members of the committees and women employees remain unaware of the provisions of the act and hesitant to assert themselves in registering complaints or fighting for more women-friendly work structures. 

 

Towards the end of 2012, after the Delhi gang rape case, the problem of violence against women became a matter of discussion in the public sphere of India. The cruelty and intensity of the Nirbhaya incident shook both the public and government authorities. The whole country witnessed a large number of agitations demanding timely changes in the laws to protect women, both in private and public spaces. These movements compelled the authorities to make amendments in the Indian penal code and to enact new laws for the protection of women. In this context, the government introduced the new Sexual Harassment against Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 (henceforth, 2013 act). The law has been passed after a hiatus of 16 years of the formulation of the Vishakha guidelines. The introduction of the 2013 act once again brought the problem of sexual harassment at the workplace (SHW) into the mainstream. As soon as the act came into force, several incidents of SHW began to be reported throughout the country. The complaints filed by a legal intern against a retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, a young journalist against a powerful media magnet, a research assistant at The Energy and Resources Institute against its director, etc were some of the high-profile cases.

 

The 2013 act is applicable to both the organised and unorganised sectors and provides protection to all working women whether drawing a salary or honorarium, or working in a voluntary capacity. The act places the responsibility of implementing the act in the workplace on the employer through the formation of an internal complaints committee (ICC) as a workplace redressal forum and to be comprised of a senior woman employee, two other employees and a social worker.[1]  It is mandated under the act that at least half of the strength of the ICC must be constituted by women. Where such a complaint committee is not set up by the employer or where such complaint is against the employer himself, a provision is made for the setting up of a committee by the district magistrate of a panel drawn from social workers and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). Where an offence is established/proved, the punishment for misconduct is as per the service rules under the act, wherein redressal ranges from apology, withholding of promotion and increment up to termination (Lawyer’s Collective 2013).

Context of the Study

It is mandatory that the 2013 act be implemented in workplaces all over the country regardless of the nature of work or status of the woman worker. The present article is based on a study conducted in the government offices of Kerala on the implementation of the 2013 act and the working mechanism of ICCs therein. Kerala is known to be a relatively progressive state in India when it comes to the indicators of women’s development, remarkable even by international standards. According to the 2011 Census, 52% of the population are women. But increasing crimes against women, both at home and the workplace, in Kerala reveals the contradiction of the Kerala model of development. As per the report of the Kerala State Crime Records Bureau for the period January–July 2016, 5,485 cases of atrocities against women were reported.

On 9 December 2013, the union government passed an order, applicable to all state governments and union territories, to implement the 2013 act in their area. The Government of Kerala further ordered all organisations, whether government, quasi government and private institutions, to form ICCs. But seeing the inactiveness of employers and heads of different departments, the social justice department on 23 May 2016 again issued an order (1556/B3/16/Social Justice Department) reminding those employers to constitute the committees in their office. The order also states that it is the responsibility of the employers to ensure an environment for the smooth functioning of these committees and to implement its decisions. The order further provides for a fine of ₹50,000 for those employers who fail to fulfil these obligations. The order concludes by saying that there are many government and private organisations which are yet to constitute the committee and majority of the private sector organisations are unaware about the existence of such laws.

To develop an understanding of the ICCs, an exploratory study was undertaken by the researcher in the government offices of Kerala. The present report is based on the interviews of employers, and the chairpersons and members of 15 ICCs. Discussions revolved around the constitution of the committee, meetings held, functioning of the committee, various challenges faced in the current working environment, orientation/awareness programmes conducted, complaints dealt with, etc. The findings of the study are as follows.

Constitution and Dynamics of ICCs

All the 15 study offices have constituted ICCs according to the 2013 act. Among them, two offices constituted ICCs after the introduction of the Vishaka guidelines in 1997, but they were largely inactive and were later reconstituted, according to the new law. It was found that the composition of all 15 ICCs was as prescribed by the law. Seven ICCs had women activists, five had women advocates and three had counsellors as external members. The external member is required, in the words of Justice JS Verma of the Supreme Court, 

 

To prevent the possibility of any pressure or influence from senior levels, such complaints committee should involve a third party either an NGO or other body who is familiar with the issue of sexual harassment.

 

Retirement of senior women officers is the main problem faced by all the employers when constituting an ICC. Usually senior woman employees become presiding officers of the ICCs 3–4 months before retirement. When they retire, the employers have to reconstitute the committee, which is a time-consuming process. The law prescribes that the senior most women employee must be appointed as the chairperson of the ICC. But it was found that in all organisations (except the social justice department), middle or bottom level employees were the chairpersons. In this situation, they have to seek the opinion and permission of their superior male officers for every decision they take, bringing into question the capability and acceptability of her role in decision-making in relation to the committee. This constitutional dilemma will negatively affect the authority of ICCs in matters related to women’s security. 

Male employers think that there is no need for such mechanisms within the office setting, as women have lots of other places to complain. This clearly shows that the patriarchal mindset still exists even among highly qualified professionals. On the other hand, women employees consider it a new space in their offices. But they are hesitant to encourage it openly as they are afraid of getting labelled as feminists. Even though they are self-sufficient and enjoy a high status in society, the fear of being stigmatised restricts them. It means that economic empowerment alone is not sufficient for women’s empowerment. In Becker’s opinion (1963), people are labelled in society for their behaviour and here, women are afraid of being labelled as feminists because there is some kind of negative perception associated with the same in society. Most women employees like to remain neutral, because only then will they get acceptance in society from the opposite sex. 

While all the offices have ICCs, their functioning is not satisfactory. Most ICCs have only been constituted on paper with little to no awareness among the employees about its functioning, members, rules and/or procedures. In 11 out of 15 committees, the members, including the chairperson, were not fully aware of the procedure to be followed while dealing with the complaint. Fearing the imposition of fines, most employers have constituted ICCs but only for name sake.

 

 

The law prescribes that the committee should meet at regular intervals preferably once in three months and meet immediately when a case is reported. Table 1 shows that majority of the committees conduct meetings once in six months and only one committee follows the guidelines (of meeting once in three months). Another 40% of ICCs meet once a year. Most committee members revealed that they only conduct meetings because of the need to send a report to the concerned authorities at the end of the year. None of the employers bother about the meeting of the committees; they only demand a report from the chairperson at the time of submission of annual report to the government. Time constraint is the main problem that hinders the meeting according to the chairpersons of the committee. On such chairperson states that “everyone here is so busy, we find it difficult to find time and sexual harassment is not a burning issue.” The external members of the committees appear for meetings only when there is a case to deal with. Furthermore, the interviewed chairpersons unanimously opined that 

 

Timely meeting of the committee will not prevent harassment against women at workplace and we cannot fulfil the objectives of the 2013 act in an office setting which is always controlled by men. (Personal interviews 2016)

 

From these comments, it is clear that chairpersons are pessimistic and non-assertive in their decisions in a male-dominated working environment. In addition to time constraints, the absence of complaints is cited as a major reason for not conducting meetings. When women employees were asked about the low incidence of complaints, they opined that they were not hopeful about the prospects of registering a complaint, unhappy about its functioning, lacked the confidence to report, fearful of further consequences of reporting, subsequent stigmatisation and undue delays in getting the problem solved. 

Functioning of the ICCs

In the first phase of data collection, it was found that no committee had submitted annual reports to the employer. When the employers were contacted, most of them were not aware of the provisions of reporting and the others, never cared to start with. When asked about this lacuna in reporting, all of them said that the government authorities never asked for the report and neither got the time to do these things along with other official duties.

In the second phase of data collection, it was found that all the committees and employers have taken care to maintain an annual report, mainly because of the order issued by the state government. They included details of the meeting, cases reported, procedures followed in cases, etc in their report. But the reports seldom reflect the realities of SHW faced by women because majority of the women never reported harassment due to the reasons mentioned earlier in this article. Therefore, researchers or policy makers do not get the real statistics of SHW.

The 15 committees altogether received a total of 19 cases. But they received several anonymous or unofficial complaints through phone calls and letters. When asked about the reason behind the low number of cases, the members of the committee pointed to the working environment prevalent in each office. The ICCs function within the office premises and comprise of minimum five members, where all the members of the committee know each other very well. Even though the law insists on keeping all case records secret, there are chances that these reports might go public. Most of the women employees feared the consequences of publicising the reports and its subsequent stigmatisation and labelling, so they were unwilling to give formal complaints to ICCs and instead chose to approach the higher authority and report the incident orally. But these complaints never get the attention of ICCs and thus, a formal redressal becomes impossible. The working environment of government offices is highly politicised and there is a tendency to convert every issue into a political problem. In addition to this, section 14 of the 2013 act envisages punishment for false or malicious complaints. If the political union of the harasser is able to influence the committee, the women may have to face reverse consequences. This is another reason why women refrain from complaining. 

In most cases, conciliation was the primary option and all the harassers were issued warnings as punishment. No compensation is given to the victims in those cases. Most of the cases were solved in one or two sittings and the complainants do not have the interest to go beyond such procedures. When the harasser is a superior officer it is very difficult to collect evidence against him. In the words of the chairperson, 

 

Power relations in the hierarchy have an important role to play, it is not easy for a woman of lower rank to stand against her superior without the support of colleagues. (Personal interviews 2016)

 

The power perspective views sexual harassment as the result of power inequality that enables harassers to sexually coerce and objectify those “beneath” them in a hierarchy (Farley 1978; MacKinnon 1979). Arguably, although power always seems to play some role in sexual harassment, different power issues may be involved depending on the source of the harassment (Cleveland and Kerst 1993). These institutionalised power imbalances are the main reason for low reporting of cases of sexual harassment at workplace.

Even though the ICC is supposed to act as an independent body, it is affected by the power relations and gender relations of a working environment. Most of the women employers said that ICCs are providing a “new space” for them in their offices. But when it comes to practise the space is limited and restricted.

ICC members’ Awareness

It is mandatory for the employer to display at various locations in the workplace, the penal consequences of sexual harassment and the order constituting the ICC. It is also the duty of the employer to organise workshops and awareness programmes at regular intervals for sensitising employers regarding the provisions of the act and orientation programmes for members of the ICC.

Even though employers are aware of such duties, they seldom follow such regulations. The employer usually abandons all responsibility after the nomination of members to the ICC, suggesting time and lack of funds from the government to conduct orientation and training programmes despite articulating the need for them. However, when the ICC members and chairpersons themselves lack sufficient knowledge of the provisions of the act, how can the women employees of the organisation be expected to be aware of the same. Women employees including members of ICC are not entirely aware of the actions that fall under the purview of SHW. Most of them equate sexual harassment with rape and are unaware about the definition of sexual harassment given by the Supreme Court. It was found that majority of the chairpersons themselves are found to be shy or not ready to use the word sexual harassment. Therefore, it is imperative to give an orientation regarding the ICCs to the committee members. 

Most of the chairpersons have dismissed the need for such a committee by saying that sexual harassment does not occur in their workplaces. In the words of a chairperson, “employees here are highly educated and share family-like relationships. So instances of sexual harassment will not happen in this workplace.” Some others felt that SHW will not occur in a government establishment and all employees are obliged to follow certain written rules and regulations. This opinion came despite the fact of 19 reported cases of sexual harassment in the sample. 

The 2013 act was enacted to provide women a safe and secure working environment and section 19 states that it is the duty of every employer to ensure the same. So the ICCs have provisions to accept other issues besides sexual harassment. Based on this provision, four committees out of 15 submitted its report to the government to include basic infrastructure facilities such as separate toilets and rest rooms in their office because the lack of these facilities increases the chances of harassment. 

Conclusions 

The 2013 act and the ICCs are a new beginning in protecting working women. ICC is a mechanism to address sexual harassment of women at the workplace, within the limits of their office setting. In this sense, it is available to every woman. Its presence itself can create a lot of changes in the working environment. At the same time, there are lot of factors such as a highly politicised working environment, patriarchal attitudes that dominate the working conditions, lack of interest of officials, fear of consequences and social stigma attached to sexual harassment, etc which prevent the effective functioning of ICCs.

The act lags behind in many respects and faced stiff criticism from different sections of society at the time of its inception. The most important drawback of the act is that it lacks an appellate authority to coordinate the activities of the committees and to monitor its functioning. According to the male members of the committee, the main drawback of the law is that it is not gender neutral. In their opinion, men also face such problems and they do not have the space to complain. They suggest that the law must be changed to incorporate working men and their problems. 

If implemented properly it is the best forum to communicate to employees as to what behaviour is acceptable and not, in a non-threatening atmosphere of mutual learning. The training of ICC members should include a component of gender-sensitisation along with the procedure for taking complaints, conducting enquiry, etc. It is imperative that the employers follow a zero tolerance approach towards sexual harassment at the workplace, irrespective of whoever is the accused. ICCs are sites were women can legally take leadership initiatives and thereby, empower themselves. 

Notes

[1] According to the Sexual Harassment at Workplace Act, 2013, the external member of the ICC should be the one who is familiar with issues of harassment and who is accessible, approachable, committed, sensitive, and understanding. The committee has to complete the inquiry of cases within 90 days and must provide a report to the employer within 10 days. It is also essential to conduct training programmes to sensitise/train members of the ICC to recognise sexual harassment, deal with it when it occurs and prevent it. 

Image Credit: Dennis Matheson, (CC BY-SA 2.0), via Flickr.

References

Becker, Howard (1963): Outsiders, New York: Free Press.

Cleveland, J N and M E Kerst (1993): “Sexual Harassment and Perceptions of Power: An Under-articulated Relationship,” Journal of Vocational Behaviour, Vol 42, No 1, pp 49–67.

Farley, L (1978): Sexual Shakedown: The Sexual Harassment of Women on the Job, New York: McGraw-Hill. 

MacKinnon, Catharine (1979): Sexual harassment Of Working Women: A Case of Sex Discrimination, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 

www.lawyerscollective.org/.../sexual-harassment-workplace-act-rules-2013.

 

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