It is estimated that around 500,000 workers work in the garment industry in almost 1200 factories in and around Bengaluru. Most of the leading multinational brands like H&M, GAP, JC Penny, ZARA and Next source from this city. 90% of the garment workers in Bengaluru are women who are mostly migrant workers from rural Karnataka or neighbouring states, with little education.
“A lot of things happen, but we cannot talk about it” says a Garment Worker (cividep)
Sexual harassment at the workplace is the most insidious form of violation of labour and human rights in this sector exacerbated by the fact that it goes unreported and unchecked. The violation is further intensified when there is denial of the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
Prevention of sexual harassment at workplace is a priority issue of Martha Farrell Foundation. It is committed to ensuring safe workplaces for all women and by doing so, one of the things it does frequently is to initiate conversations on the issue with a wide range of actors from both the formal and the informal sectors.
An Open Forum discussion was conducted by the foundation and hosted by Samvada in Bengaluru on 11th May 2016. More than 50 practitioners from the informal and formal sectors attended. The discussions focused on the definition of sexual harassment and issues around the compliance of and noncompliance of the related law.
During the discussion, a member of the garment union explained how sexual harassment at the workplace is the biggest challenge they face in the workplace today. She said, “Sexual harassment in the form of verbal abuses is so much a part of our workplace culture that it has almost become normal. In fact women are so used to hearing it from their supervisors that after a point they have stopped responding to it.” She also narrated that the leader of the union that they were members of, sexually harassed 12 female members of the union.
Spaces for conversations on the issue are absent within and outside workplaces, discussions are often conducted behind closed doors in hushed whispers. Data on sexual harassment at workplace is inadequate, according to national data, there were 526 cases of sexual harassment at workplace was reported in 2014. But even from the little data that is available, there is a glaring 200% increase
There could be several reasons for the lack of data, and non-reporting on the issue. In the garment industry for instance, not only was there a gross betrayal by the very system that had been created for their support, but as was shared in the Open Forum discussion, “The women did not realise what was happening to them until the sexual harassment had gone too far.”
There is ambiguity on the issue and the feelings of guilt, shame, stigma that goes with it further adds to the dilemma that women who have been harassed faced.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome sexual behaviour. It exists in 4 different forms: verbal, non- verbal, visual and physical. It includes behaviour such as stalking, invading private space, winking, repeatedly asking someone for a date, asking for sexual favours. When the acceptance of or rejection of such sexual behaviour has a direct impact on one’s job and career, it is considered to be sexual harassment at the workplace.
In India, the Prevention of Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, was passed in 2013. It holds the employer responsible for providing a safe environment for women – both in the workforce as part and full time employees, consultant, volunteer or an intern including for visitors.
The law includes in its definition of an aggrieved woman, any one of the above including home based, domestic or agricultural workers.
What was clear in the discussions was that sexual harassment is a labour issue that has to be addressed at the institutional level. Very often in the rush for meeting compliance norms, the emotions and the spirit in which the law was made is lost.