The Lok sabhas (Lower house) and Rajya sabhas (Upper house) have passed the Sexual Harassment to Women at the Workplace Bill (2012) (the Bill), almost 15 years after the Supreme Court of India in Vishaka and others v State Rajasthan (Vishka Judgment) identified the need for laws directly addressing sexual harassment in India, and laid down guidelines making it mandatory for employers to provide internal grievance mechanisms pertaining to workplace sexual harassment.
The Bill, which is awaiting Presidential assent, gives legislative backing to the guidelines set by the Supreme Court in the Vishka Judgment, whilst also extending the obligations placed on employers to take measures to ensure that sexual harassment of their female employees is prevented.
The Bill makes it obligatory for an employer to take measures to ensure that sexual harassment of its female employees is prevented, including by:
- providing a safe working environment;
- providing for a grievance redressal and complaint mechanism for victims of sexual harassment through the constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) at all offices of a company and Local Complaints Committees (LCC); and
- providing assistance to female employees who choose to file a complaint in relation to sexual harassment related offences under the Indian Penal Code or any other law in force.
The Bill further:
- sets out the procedure to be followed by ICCs and LCCs;
- equips ICCs with the powers of a civil court under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 for the purposes of requiring discovery of documents, summoning and enforcing attendance of persons an examining them on oath;
- employs a definition of ‘the workplace’ that is not limited (as it was in the Vishka Judgement) to the premises of the employer, but includes any place that is visited by an employee during and in the course of her employment including transportation; and
- employs a definition of ‘employee’ that covers permanent, part-time, ad-hoc or daily wage employees and contractors and volunteers.
Action for employers
Employers are advised to review their internal policies and ensure compliance with the provisions of the Bill in order to avoid facing penalties, including fines of up to Rs 50,000 in the first instance, and higher penalties and cancellation of licence or registration to conduct business for repeated violations.