Indulekha Aravind


Women contract workers and those in the unorganised sector have no access to the redress platforms available to the upper classes. But they are among the most vulnerable to sexual harassment at work

By now, you would have read about count less instances of women being sexually harassed, abused and propositioned in their workplace, while they go about do ing their job. The perpetrators are power ful film producers, directors, politicians, journalists, academics. A few of these vic tims have braced themselves and chosen legal recourse, others have spoken to jour nalists, non-disclosure agreements be damned, and some have chosen to name their harassers without revealing their identity. All in the hope of that elusive de liverance called justice. While there has been no shortage of sceptics and flag-bear ers of patriarchy, there has also been a tidal wave of support, especially on social media, that has carried these voices for ward, amplified them and brought them too close to home to ignore. Justice might remain distant, but this has given those who have spoken out a modicum of sup port, the reassurance that they are not alone in this fight.Away from the social media spotlight, there are many more fights taking place for the same justice, among women who are far more vulnerable. Here is one, which began with women workers like you and me asking their male boss a legiti mate question about their back wages and when they would be paid. Put yourself in their place. Instead of telling you when you will be paid, he tells you that if you want your salary, you will have to sleep with him. If you speak up against this man, who is known to have harassed women in the past, you run the risk of losing your job. But this is not the first time he has harassed you and, fed up, you complain to the internal committee against sexual harassment, which does nothing. That’s when things take a turn for the worse. When your boss learns that you complained about him, he pulls his pants down in front of you and tells you that’s where your wages are -to come and get them. It doesn’t end there. He then threatens to rape you and drive a rod through you which will come out through your mouth. Finally, he and the men he has hired beat you with sticks.

This horror story is the lived reality of Swarna*, Devaki*, Deepa* and other contract workers employed by the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) in KR Puram‘s ward No. 55 in Bengaluru.Driven to the wall, they gathered on Wednesday afternoon at the BBMP headquarters to protest the actions of their su pervisor. “He told us that people from our caste needed to be at his feet,“ says Swarna, 29, who has been a contract worker with BBMP for over a decade. The “he“ here is Nagesh, their contractor for oneand-a-half years who is now on the run, after the police regis tered their complaint.Her colleague and friend, Devaki, says he and his henchman had been harassing them for a while, bumping against their breasts while pretending it was an accident and grabbing them by the hand and pulling them.“When we asked for our salary he said that all those who wanted money should form a separate line and marry him,“ says Deepa, who has tears in her eyes when she recalls what happened. “He hasn’t paid us for four months. We don’t even have enough food at home,“ she says, her voice breaking.

While sexual harassment at work has shown itself to be all-pervasive, starting from the highest echelons of Hollywood, women like Swarna and Deepa, who are contract workers, and those in the unor ganised sector are pos sibly the most vulnerable. “If you look at the form of employment, there is absolutely no job security. If they raise any question, they stand to lose their employment, something they are extremely scared of. The labour department is ineffectual, the owners wash their hands off it -so these workers are extremely vulnerable,“ says lawyer Clifton D’Rozario. A 2012 survey on sexual harassment at work by nonprofit Oxfam India along with Social and Rural Research Institute found that labourers, domestic workers and women working in small-scale manufacturing were the most vulnerable.“The only difference about the latest incident was the gravity of it. Otherwise, sexual harassment and caste abuse is hardly an exception among women contract workers,“ says Maitreyi Krishnan, a lawyer and member of the All India Central Council of Trade Unions who has been working with contract workers from different sectors. “When these women ask for water from houses they clean the garbage from, they get it in a bathroom mug,“ Krishnan adds.

Gender + Caste: Double Whammy

Bengaluru’s garment factories, while a source of employment for over 5,00,000 people, most of whom are women, have also become sites of rampant sexual abuse and violenc, most of which goes unreported. Here, too, the balance of power is heavily skewed against the women, who are employed on contract and come from impoverished backgrounds and marginalised sections. 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 have either been raped or forced to commit a sexual act.Abuse and sexual harassment of women garment workers, it found, is rou tine. In one of the case studies it reports, a manager was constantly harassing a 20-year-old unmarried garment worker, threatening to fire her if she reported him. When she eventually told a union represent ative about her suffering, she supported her in filing a complaint with the company’s human resources department but no action was taken against the supervisor. The study found that action was taken in a mere 3.6% of the complaints received, with not a single person being convicted. In both these sectors, the power structure is similar -the subordinates are overwhelmingly women from economically-weaker sections, often Scheduled Caste, while the supervisors and management are men. At stake is the means to earn their livelihood, which their perpetrators can put an end to. This is also why many of the offences go unreported, since action is rarely taken against the supervisor. “The law exists but it does not operate for those in the unorganised sector. In the contract system, if you open your mouth, you’ll lose your job -whether it is to ask for your wages or complain about sexual harassment,“ says D’Rozario.

If there is a section of workers where the harassment might be rampant but suppressed even more, it is domestic workers. Of these, it is the migrant, live-in workers who are the most vulnerable, says Geetha Menon, secretary of Stree Jagruti Samiti, a non-profit working to empower domestic workers. “In the unorganised sector, the workspace itself is scattered or “invisible“. Most of the workers are not established as such, there is no uniform legislation recognising them and their rights. This makes talking about sexual harassment even more difficult. Since there is no infrastructure or mechanism, it dies down.“

Lack of Redressal

The law India enacted in 2013 prohibiting sexual harassment at work covers all sectors of the economy, including the unorganised sector. In lieu of the internal complaints committee that every company is mandated to have, the district administration is supposed to set up local complaints committees (LCCs) that women in or ganisations with less than 10 employees and domestic workers can approach. “The local complaints committee has not been set up in many districts and, when they have been, I’m not sure how accessible they are to women in rural and tribal areas,“ says Menon.

One alternative her organisation has attempted is to set up resident welfare committees that take the place of LCCs but there is no guarantee it would work. In one case, where an electrician was accused of molesting a domestic worker, her employers were happy to set up such a committee at their apartment complex, since the woman did not want to approach the police.The committee members decided that nobody in that building would employ the accused in future. But, in another incident, where the perpetrator was the employer and a resident, the building association was indifferent to the plight of the complainant, a domestic worker who was also a minor, says Menon. “They refused to have a committee saying they were not responsible, only the em ployer is. But we were arguing that those premises were the workplace. These are the same people who would have internal com plaints committees in their offices.“

Even in the formalised sector, when there is a mechanism in place, there are multiple hur dles to due process being followed, from stig ma and ostracisation the complainant might face to the loss of employment itself. There is also the fear among victims that they might not be believed and taken seriously, whether they are working in small organisations or multinational companies, as instances such as the harassment reported at Uber have shown.

In the unorganised sector and among contract workers, where the very nature of their em ployment is not formalised, the challenges in reporting harassment are manifold. In such cases, trade unions might be the only platform available to these workers.

The BBMP, for instance, has an internal complaints committee which the workers from KR Puram had approached initially when their supervisor had told them that if they needed a raise they would need to sleep with him. “We told the committee that since this complaint has been filed against the con tractor, it is very likely that they will be target ed, so please protect them. Section 12 of the Act provides for protection to be given when the workers make a complaint. The BBMP in its wisdom refused to do anything. That’s when the subsequent incident took place, where he went and stood in front of the work ers,“ says D’ Rozario. One of the complainants affirms this. “From October 11, after we com plained, the torture increased,“ she says.

But now that the dam has been broken, the women are determined not to back down from reclaiming their rights, though there are no hashtags for them. Mayor Sampath Raj arrives to meet them at the steps of the BBMP headquarters and listens to their grievances. Another two workers stand up and tell him about the assault they faced two months ago, in another area, Peenya, when they had asked for their salary.“He held my hands, dragged me and hit me,“ says Anjamma, who has been working for over two decades. The mayor assures them that the contractor, Nagesh, will be blacklisted, which gives them some satisfaction. “He should be arrested and not given a contract again. The hands with which he assaulted us should never be allowed to do so again,“ says Deepa, as she leaves the protest venue to go back home to her two young children and an uncertain future.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the contract workers