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Fear, economic vulnerability, lack of family support and ignorance of the law make a potent combination for sexual exploitation of women in the informal sector.
Sexual harassment of women at their workplace is a reality all over India, ever since women emerged to work shoulder to shoulder with men. If women in the organised sector face such harassment, the situation is far worse for women in the informal sector. When working women happen to be illiterate, poor, and ignorant of the law, the threat is rendered ten times worse.
Fear of reprisal, extreme economic vulnerability, stigmatic nature of the issue, lack of family support and ignorance of the law causes women in the informal sector to tolerate sexual harassment and exploitation at their workplace, as per a study-Strengthening the Access of Women in the Informal Sector to their Right to Protection from Sexual Harassment at Workplace – by Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) and the Asia Foundation.
In keeping with the recommendations of the Delhi Group and the International Labour Organization (ILO) Guidelines (ILO, 2013), India defines the informal sector as consisting of ‘all unincorporated private enterprises owned by individuals or households engaged in the sale and production of goods and services operated on a proprietary or partnership basis and with less than ten total workers.’
Thus, all workers without either job security or social security are regarded as informal workers.
There are at least an estimated 120 million women in the informal sector. Of these, 29 per cent work as labourers. 23 per cent work as domestics, and 16 per cent in small–scale units. Most are employed through contractors for loading and unloading at railway yards, or at weddings and functions for cleaning jobs, or at brick kilns. Recruitment is on a casual basis, with no formal/legal contract specifying their work hours, or emoluments. Employment is not guaranteed; and often seasonal.
Even otherwise, women labourers draw Rs 150-180 daily, as against their male counterparts who earn Rs 250-280 a day.
Most women in the informal sector are those deserted by their husbands, or victims of extreme domestic violence. Literacy and awareness levels are also abysmally low.
It is no small wonder then that lecherous advances and sexual exploitation is a daily reality to put up with, as Jamna, who handles loading jobs in Bhopal ( Madhya Pradesh) concedes. “We have to be in the good books of these men. The market is competitive. If we dare say a word when they eye us wrongly, even the 10-12 days of work we get will not come our way.” For Jamna, who is saddled with a drunkard husband, dignity at work means nothing if she cannot manage to feed and clothe her three children.
Domestic workers do enjoy a modicum of stability at their jobs. But woe betide those who complain of sexual harassment, as Latika, a domestic worker, discovered, when she complained of being harassed by one of the men in the household she worked. She not only lost her job, but had to spend time in police custody for theft, until she was proved innocent.
At times, sexual exploitation can be insidious. “Young, good-looking women are summoned by supervisors to their room and kept there for hours,” reveals Bitto , who works in a Delhi plastic factory.
Migrant Devipujak women from Rajasthan working in Ahmedabad as construction labourers often get groped by strangers as they sleep at (construction ) sites at night. At work, contractors demand sexual favours from women as a rule. “Do we have a choice?” asks Girja, who works at a construction site.
However, women in Delhi-NCR and to some extent, Madhya Pradesh, are a lot more aware of their rights to a safe, secure environment as compared to women in West Bengal or Gujarat. Yet , even they are unwilling to complain fearing social boycott.
The Sexual harassment of women at workplace (Prevention,Prohibition, and Redressal) Act 2013 or SHW Act , came into operation in 2013.
As per the Act, “the Government is required to set up a ‘local complaints committee’ (“LCC”) to investigate and redress complaints of sexual harassment from the unorganized sector or from establishments where the ICC has not been constituted on account of the establishment having less than 10 employees or if the complaint is against the employer.” (Refer key provisions of the SHW Act- Complaints Committee).
In the absence of an Internal Complaints Committee in an organisation, district-level LCCs are to receive and deal with complaints.
However, in most states, functioning LCCs are lacking. In Delhi state, only one district has its LCC. Gujarat has LCCs in only 24 of its districts, while West Bengal has LCCs in just 4 districts, with training of incumbents yet to be taken care of.
The notable exceptions are Odisha and Madhya Pradesh, which have set up LCCs in all districts, and trained every incumbent therein.
Thus, notwithstanding legal provisions, women in the informal sector lack the necessary protection to live and work in dignity. MARG particularly emphasizes on the need for the government to sensitize employers, and create awareness on what SHW is; emphasizing that the government, “needs to put systems in place to ensure women get justice.”
Given that a huge chunk of the national economy is made of goods and services provided by the informal sector, it is only right that the government ensure every woman therein can work with dignity.
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