“As a woman domestic worker, I want a safe workplace.”
Nearly 3,000 domestic workers in India mailed postcards with this request over the last few weeks to Smriti Irani, India’s minister in charge of women and child development.
With this act, the women reaffirmed their place in the global #MeToo movement, speaking out against violence and harassment at work. Most Indian women are employed in the informal sector. They had long remained largely invisible when the #MeToo hashtag, coined by United States activist Tarana Burke, exploded on social media in 2017.
“For women like me, what is #MeToo?” said a part-time domestic worker in Gurugram who was sexually harassed by a security guard in the residential complex where she worked. “There is no place safe for women like us.”
Long before the #MeToo movement, women’s rights activists in India had raised awareness and advocated around sexual harassment and violence at work after Bhanwari Devi, a government-appointed social welfare worker was gang-raped for opposing child marriage in 1992. The Supreme Court subsequently required the government to adopt policies and laws to protect women workers from sexual abuse.
Strong barriers to reporting cases
In 2013, India enacted the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, meant to protect workers in both formal and informal sectors, including domestic workers. The law was a significant legislative advance but, as Human Rights Watch found in a 2020 report it has been poorly enforced.
Women face strong barriers to reporting, including stigma, fear of reprisals and a lack of trust in systems that are supposed to provide redress. The law has especially failed women in the informal sector, most of whom come from socially and economically marginalised communities and face additional barriers to justice.
“We should get the rights we are entitled to,” said a 24-year-old woman who has been a domestic worker since she was 10. “I want to be able to work without fear and with dignity.” Like many other women, she faced repeated sexual harassment at work but put up with it because she needed the job.
India’s law requires employers to prevent sexual harassment and respond to complaints in work-related activities, whether in an office, field visits, or on transportation. The government is also responsible for developing training and educational materials, raising awareness, and monitoring implementation of the law, including tracking data on sexual harassment cases.
But a central element of the law – relating to “Local Committees” – has been ignored. The law requires employers to create an Internal Committee at each office with 10 or more employees. For those with fewer than 10 employees and for the informal sector, the state government’s district officer or collector is required to form a local committee.
These committees are to handle complaints and recommend actions ranging from a written apology to termination of employment, providing an alternative to filing a criminal complaint with police.
But studies show that many districts do not have local committees, and when they do, there is little awareness of them and no publicly available information on how to access them.
Demand for access to justice
Domestic workers are especially at risk due to their isolation in private homes and their exclusion from many key labour protections. The sexual harassment law denies them a civil remedy guaranteed to other workers, requiring local committees to refer the case to the police. But studies show that women often face humiliation, mistrust and lack of assistance at police stations when they report sexual violence, making most reluctant to bring a complaint.
“Even in rape cases, women have such a difficult time filing a complaint, so how would they file a complaint that an employer looked at them inappropriately?” said Nandita Bhatt, director of the Martha Farrell Foundation, which works for domestic workers’ rights and is supporting the postcard campaign.
Domestic workers want the law changed. In their postcards, they demand the same access to justice through the local committees as other workers. “Safety and dignity are most important to us and our primary demands,” the Gurugram-based domestic worker said. “We hope that our collective effort might bear fruit.”
The Indian government has demonstrated a willingness to address the issue but is sometimes inclined toward ill-considered systems that harm the women they seek to protect or discourage them from joining the workforce. For instance, the Madhya Pradesh state government has proposed that any woman who travels outside her home for work should register at the local police station, creating time and cost burden for the women, and leading to concerns about increased harassment and loss of privacy.
The authorities, instead, need to do the hard work to ensure the rights of women at work. The government in June 2019 expressed support for the International Labour Organization Violence and Harassment Convention, a landmark treaty with global standards to prevent and respond to violence and harassment in the workplace. India should swiftly ratify the treaty and fully enforce the 2013 sexual harassment law, particularly by creating properly trained and effective local committees. That would be a powerful first step in responding to the postcard campaign.