POSH Act 2013: Safeguarding Women in Indian Workplaces

POSH Act

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POSH Act 2013: Safeguarding Women in Indian Workplaces

Introduction: For decades, women’s organizations and advocates have been pushing for legal measures to safeguard women’s rights within the Indian Constitution. In the patriarchal landscape of India, where women’s rights require special attention and protection, various laws have been enacted for this purpose. Among these legislative efforts stands the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act of 2013. This law was formulated to shield women from the scourge of sexual harassment in their professional environments.

Table of Contents

Prevalence of Workplace Harassment: Understanding the Distinction

There’s a recognized difference between sexual harassment and sex-based harassment, emphasizing that the former isn’t solely driven by sexual desire but can also serve as a means to exert dominance. These behaviors have detrimental effects on a woman’s emotional well-being, hindering both her personal and professional development.

Underreported Cases in Women’s Workforce

Studies indicate that despite the relatively low representation of women in the workforce, a significant number have experienced sexual harassment, with many cases going unreported. This underreporting is influenced by the prevailing culture of silence ingrained in girls’ education, conditioning them to silently endure patriarchal oppression.

The hierarchical structure of workplaces, combined with gender power dynamics in a patriarchal society, exacerbates unequal power dynamics. This often leaves women in lower-ranking positions vulnerable, facing a difficult choice between reporting harassment and risking their job security. Anticipated consequences of filing a complaint against perpetrators typically include job loss or similar reprisals. Moreover, victims may face victim-blaming if their actions deviate from societal gender norms, such as attending late-night events, consuming alcohol, or wearing certain attire. These factors underscore the necessity for legislative measures aimed at cultivating a safe work environment.

From Bhanwari Devi Case to the POSH Act

The gang rape of Bhanwari Devi in 1992 marked a turning point that ignited the demand for legislation addressing workplace harassment. Bhanwari Devi, employed by the Haryana government’s Women and Child Development Department, was targeted while working to prevent child marriages by members of the influential Gurjar community. The subsequent acquittal of the accused by a lower court drew widespread media attention, shedding light on the urgent need for legal protection for women in the workplace.

Legal Response and Vishakha Guidelines

In 1997, certain Non-Governmental Organizations filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court, seeking to safeguard women’s fundamental rights under Articles 14, 19, and 21 of the Constitution. This petition specifically addressed the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace. Recognizing the absence of domestic legislation on this matter, the Supreme Court issued the Vishakha guidelines to provide interim protection until dedicated legislation was enacted.

Core Elements of the POSH Act

The POSH Act of 2013 serves as a landmark legislation offering a robust framework for addressing workplace sexual harassment. It defines sexual harassment comprehensively as any unwelcome verbal, physical, or visual act or behavior of a sexual nature, encompassing:

  • Solicitation of sexual favors;
  • Offer of preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favors;
  • Threat of retaliation for refusing sexual advances; or
  • Any other unwelcome sexual conduct.

Process for Reporting and Investigation: The Act delineates a structured process for reporting and investigating sexual harassment complaints. Victims or their representatives are empowered to file complaints, which must be submitted to either the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) or the Local Complaints Committee (LCC), depending on the workplace’s size.

Responsibilities of the ICC and LCC

The Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) or the Local Complaints Committee (LCC) is tasked with investigating the complaint and implementing necessary measures. Potential actions that may be taken include:

  • Issuing a reprimand to the accused.
  • Facilitating the transfer of the accused to a different position.
  • Suspending the accused from their duties.
  • Terminating the accused’s employment.
  • Initiating criminal proceedings against the accused.

Safeguards for the Victim

The POSH Act incorporates several safeguards for the victim, including:

  • Ensuring confidentiality of the complaint.
  • Offering protection from any form of retaliation.
  • Granting access to legal aid as needed.

The POSH Act represents a significant advancement in combating workplace sexual harassment, offering a well-defined and comprehensive framework for addressing such misconduct. It not only provides safeguards for victims but also serves as a valuable tool in establishing harassment-free workplaces. Such regulatory measures not only alleviate the burden on the judiciary but also ensure prompt justice for affected women, instilling a sense of confidence among female employees that they are protected and discouraging further instances of harassment.

Provisions for Preventing Workplace Harassment

Definition and Scope

Section 2(n) of the Act defines “sexual harassment” to encompass unwelcome physical contact, sexually suggestive remarks, requests for sexual favors, displaying pornography, or any other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. Additionally, Section 2(o) defines the term “workplace” broadly to include both government and private sector establishments. These definitions are integral to Section 3, which outright prohibits sexual harassment.

Subsection (2) of Section 3 outlines various circumstances that may constitute sexual harassment when connected to or in relation to any act or behavior falling under the definition. These circumstances include implied or explicit promises of preferential treatment, threats of adverse consequences, intimidation regarding employment status, interference with work, creation of a hostile work environment, and actions likely to humiliate or impact health and safety.

Reporting and Redressal Mechanisms Outlined in Regulations

The main mechanisms governing the prohibition, prevention, and redressal of sexual harassment issues are the Internal Complaints Committees under Section 4 and Local Committees under Section 6.

Under Section 4, it is mandatory for employers to establish Internal Complaints Committees at all offices and administrative units, irrespective of their location. This section also specifies the composition requirements for these committees, including the necessary qualifications, experience, and knowledge of the members. It mandates that at least half of the committee members must be women. The tenure of appointed members is three years, and any member found to be in violation of the law or facing pending inquiries or proceedings will be removed from the committee.

Section 6 mandates district officers to establish Local Committees to receive sexual harassment complaints from institutions where Internal Committees have not been formed due to having fewer than ten workers or if the complaint is against the employer themselves.

Implementation Mechanisms: Filing a Complaint

To initiate the redressal mechanism, the aggrieved woman is required to file a written complaint as outlined in Section 9 of the POSH Act. If she is unable to file a written complaint on her own for any reason, the presiding officer or members of the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC), or in the case of the Local Committee, the chairperson or any member of the Committee, are obligated to provide her with reasonable support in filing the complaint.

According to the Act, a written complaint must be filed with the committee within three months from the date of the incident, or in the case of a series of events, within three months from the date of the last incident. However, the ICC or local committee holds the authority to extend this period if they are satisfied that circumstances prevented the woman from filing the complaint within the specified timeframe. Such extensions can be granted by the committee, provided they record the reasons in writing.Inquiry into the complaint

Empowerment and Inquiry Process

Under Section 11 of the Act, both the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) and the Local Committee are empowered to investigate complaints in accordance with the service rules applicable to the respondent. In the absence of such rules, the inquiry should proceed based on prescribed regulations.

Handling Cases Involving Domestic Employees

In cases involving domestic employees, the Local Committee is mandated to take prompt action. If the committee finds merit in the complaint, it must, within seven days of receipt, refer the matter to the police for registration under Section 509 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860, along with any other relevant provisions of the code.

If the aggrieved woman report the police that any terms or conditions of the settlement agreed upon under Section 10(2) have not been adhered to, the committee must investigate the complaint or refer it to the police. The proviso of this section incorporates the principle of natural justice by requiring the committee to provide both parties with a copy of the findings and to grant them a hearing during the inquiry.

Powers of the Committee and Timely Inquiry

Under Section 11(3), the committee is vested with the powers akin to that of a civil court when conducting an inquiry, particularly in the following matters:

  • Summoning and compelling the attendance of any individual for examination under oath,
  • Requesting the disclosure and presentation of documents,
  • Any other issue as may be prescribed.

Section 11(4) underscores the imperative of delivering justice promptly by mandating the committee to conclude its inquiry within a period of 90 days.

Recommendations and Implementation Measures

To safeguard the well-being of the aggrieved woman and to enforce the recommendations put forth by the ICC or the Local Committee, Section 12 of the Act authorizes the committee to propose to the employer, upon the aggrieved woman’s written request, the following actions:

  • Transfer either the aggrieved woman or the respondent to a different workplace.
  • Grant a leave of up to three months to the aggrieved woman.
  • Provide any other form of relief to the aggrieved woman as prescribed by the committee.

Enforcement of Committee Recommendations

As per Section 12(3), the employer is obligated to implement the recommendations provided by the committee and submit a report on the implementation back to the committee.

Under Section 13(3), if the allegations against the respondent are substantiated, the committee is mandated to make the following recommendations to either the employer or the district officer:

Take disciplinary action against the respondent for sexual harassment.

Deduct the determined amount from the respondent’s salary or wages to compensate the aggrieved woman, as per Section 15.

Additionally, the proviso of clause (ii) of Section 13(3) permits the employer to request the respondent to pay the determined amount if deduction from salary is not feasible. If the respondent fails to comply, the committee may forward the order for recovery of the amount as arrears of land revenue to the relevant district officer. Both the employer and the district officer are given a 60-day window to implement the committee’s recommendations.

Addressing Malicious Complaints and Appeals Process

Section 14 empowers the committee to suggest to the employer or the district officer the initiation of action against the complainant or any witnesses if the complaint is deemed malicious or if submitted documents are found to be forged or misleading.

In the event of dissatisfaction with the committee’s recommendations or non-implementation thereof, Section 18 grants both parties the right to appeal to a court or tribunal.

Employer and District Officer Responsibilities

Employers and district officers are obligated to:

  • Establish a safe work environment.
  • Display the penal consequences of sexual harassment and mention the order constituting the complaints committee.
  • Conduct workshops and orientation programs for employees and committee members, respectively.

Assistance to the Committee

They should also:

  • Assist the committee in summoning the respondent or witnesses.
  • Provide necessary information related to complaints to the committee.
  • Furnish the committee with necessary facilities for conducting its affairs.
  • Aid the aggrieved woman in filing a complaint under the Indian Penal Code of 1860.

Enforcement and Oversight

Additionally, they are required to:

  • Consider sexual harassment as misconduct and take appropriate action.
  • Monitor the timely submission of reports and recommendations by the committee.

Engagement for Awareness

The district officer is further empowered to:

  • Engage NGOs to raise awareness about sexual harassment and women’s rights.
  • Compliance Requirements:
  • Lastly, organizations must fulfill documentation and reporting obligations to ensure compliance.

Reporting Obligations of Committees and District Officers

Under Section 21, the committees are mandated to compile an annual report and deliver it to either the employer or the district officer. Furthermore, the district officer is tasked with assembling a concise summary of the compiled annual reports and forwarding it to the state government.

This report must encompass the following details:

  • Number of complaints received by the committee during the year
  • Number of complaints disposed of during the year
  • Number of complaints pending at the end of the year
  • Details of action taken on each complaint
  • Number of cases referred to police or other law enforcement agencies
  • Number of cases settled through conciliation
  • Number of cases decided by the committee

Reasons for the committee’s decisions

This annual report must be submitted to either the employer or the district officer within three months of the end of the financial year. Subsequently, the district officer is required to compile a concise summary of the accumulated annual reports and forward it to the state government.

The annual report serves as a crucial instrument for evaluating the efficacy of the existing mechanisms for preventing and addressing sexual harassment. It offers insights into the quantity of complaints received, disposed of, and pending, aiding in pinpointing areas requiring enhancements. Additionally, the report outlines the nature of complaints received, actions taken on each complaint, and rationales behind the committee’s decisions. This data can inform the development of strategies aimed at mitigating instances of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Government Authority and Employer Obligations

Empowerment of the Appropriate Government

Section 25 grants authority to the appropriate government, enabling it to:

  • Request any employer or district officer to provide written information pertaining to sexual harassment, deemed necessary in the interest of the general public and women employees.
  • Delegate an officer to examine records and the workplace, subsequently submitting an inspection report within the stipulated timeframe.

Employer and District Officer Responsibilities

According to Subsection (2) of Section 25, employers and district officers are required to furnish all information, records, and relevant documents related to the subject matter of the investigation to the designated investigation officer.

Penalty for Non-Compliance

Under Section 26 of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013, employers face a penalty of 50,000 rupees if they fail to fulfill the following obligations:

  • Establish a complaint mechanism for employees to report instances of sexual harassment.
  • Conduct prompt and impartial investigations into complaints of sexual harassment.
  • Take appropriate action against perpetrators of sexual harassment.
  • Provide the complainant with updates on the progress of the complaint.
  • Implement measures to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
  • In case of non-compliance with Section 26, the employer may be subject to a fine of up to 50,000 rupees, along with potential liability for damages to the complainant.

Ensuring compliance with Section 26 is vital for employers to establish a secure and harassment-free workplace environment for their employees. Non-compliance with this provision not only exposes employees to the risk of sexual harassment but also fosters a hostile work environment.

Consequences of Repeat Offence

If the employer is convicted again for the same offence, they will face:

  • Punishment more severe than the initial conviction.
  • Cancellation, withdrawal, or disapproval of their business license.

Implementation Challenges and Solutions

According to the Supreme Court of India, a survey conducted by a national daily newspaper across 30 national sports federations in India highlighted significant shortcomings. Specifically, it was found that 16 of these federations had failed to establish an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC). Furthermore, in cases where ICCs were established, they either did not comply with the membership requirements stipulated in the POSH Act or lacked the mandatory external member.

Addressing the Imperative for Gender Sensitization

In addition to establishing stringent guidelines to fulfill the objectives of the POSH Act, there is a critical need to implement programs focused on gender sensitization across all levels of education and employment. Merely enforcing legislation without wholeheartedly embracing gender sensitization initiatives will not suffice in granting women the equal status guaranteed to them under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution. While implementing strict regulations may offer some benefits, prioritizing educational initiatives on gender sensitization would be even more effective. Cultivating such educational programs will nurture a generation of individuals for whom legislative measures to protect any gender will no longer be necessary.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the relentless efforts of women’s groups and individuals have undoubtedly played a significant role in securing legislation aimed at bolstering the confidence of working women in their safety. While the Act offers comprehensive provisions to achieve its primary objective, the key issue lies in the lack of implementation of these provisions. Addressing these challenges requires not only the establishment of stringent rules but, more importantly, the introduction of gender-sensitive programs and education. By fostering such initiatives, we can pave the way for a future where legislation of this nature may no longer be necessary.

Frequently asked questions

What is the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013?

The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Act, 2013 is a legislation aimed at preventing and addressing sexual harassment against women in the workplace in India.

What constitutes sexual harassment under this Act?

Sexual harassment under this Act includes any unwelcome verbal, physical, or visual act or behavior of a sexual nature. This encompasses solicitation of sexual favors, offering preferential treatment in exchange for sexual favors, threats of retaliation for refusing sexual advances, or any other unwelcome sexual conduct.

What are the responsibilities of employers and district officers under this Act?

Employers and district officers are responsible for establishing a safe work environment, conducting workshops on sexual harassment prevention, assisting the complaint committees, considering sexual harassment as misconduct, monitoring submissions of reports and recommendations, and engaging NGOs for awareness.

How are complaints of sexual harassment reported and investigated under this Act?

Complaints of sexual harassment are reported to either the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) or the Local Complaints Committee (LCC), depending on the workplace’s size. The committees are responsible for investigating complaints, summoning witnesses, and compelling the production of documents. They must conclude inquiries within 90 days.

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