As #MeToo Sweeps India, Employers Need to Comply With 2013 Law
By Sameer Patil, Senior Manager Corporate Governance and HR
The #MeToo movement has taken off in India, galvanizing women to air current and past sexual harassment complaints on social media and leading to the recent resignation of several prominent business leaders and a government minister. Though the country has had an anti-sexual harassment law in place since 2013, many companies merely ignored or paid lip service to it. But in today’s environment, employers can no longer afford to turn a deaf ear.
From Bollywood to Business
As it did in the U.S., India’s #MeToo movement began in the entertainment industry, in this case after a Bollywood actress complained on news programs last fall that an actor had harassed her on a movie set. The revelation evidently hit the country at just the right moment, becoming a powder keg. Other Indian actresses and entertainers began flooding Twitter and Facebook with posts under the #MeToo hashtag, alleging harassment and assault by actors, journalists and other public figures, many describing incidents dating back years.
The movement soon spread to the enterprise world. Binny Bansal, a famous entrepreneur who cofounded and ran the popular online shopping site Flipkart (now owned by Walmart) resigned amid allegations of personal misconduct, shocking the business community. The head of communications at Indian multinational automotive manufacturer Tata Motors was fired after allegations of sexual harassment. Amazon removed a well-known Indian comedian from his role as showrunner for a new program after allegations of sexual misconduct.
But the incident that brought India’s movement to center stage internationally was the resignation of government minister AJ Akbar in October, after more than a dozen women accused him of harassment at an earlier time when he was a magazine editor. Akbar has denied the charges and filed a defamation suit against one of his accusers.
Though the movement has generated a profound influence in the business and entertainment world, it has had little effect on India’s millions of agricultural and domestic workers, leading some to describe #MeToo protests as the province of an educated and affluent urban minority.
Nationwide, India is notorious for crimes against women. An international survey conducted by Reuters last year said India was the most dangerous country in the world for women, with high rates of sexual violence and slave labor. Reported crime against women rose by 83 percent between 2007 and 2016, with four cases of rape every hour, according to government statistics.
The cultural dichotomy between an urban elite unhappy with the status quo and a more traditional rural and urban-poor population may explain the government’s apparent ambivalence towards #MeToo. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has remained silent about the movement, even amid the furor surrounding the government minister’s resignation. Though Modi has painted himself as a women’s rights champion, boasting of his government’s extended maternity leave policy and tougher rape sentences, he may view harassment complaints emanating from an urban elite as failing to resonate with poor and rural voters.
But the movement is having a widespread effect in the business community. Law firms say they are investigating more complaints. Businesses are conducting training sessions and checking job candidates’ histories for harassment complaints. Multinationals with operations in India should familiarize themselves with the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace law and make sure they are in compliance.
Complying with the Law
The law not only addresses sexual assault, but makes sexual harassment, stalking and voyeurism crimes. It pertains only to women victims, though perpetrators may be male or female. Verbal offenses and inappropriate jokes are also forbidden, though the only penalty for them is a warning.
All organizations are required by law to have a policy to prevent and redress cases of sexual harassment in the workplace. Organizations with over 10 employees must form an internal complaints committee, which must be at least 50 percent female and headed by a senior woman. Information about penalties, which start at a fine of 50,000 rupees, must be prominently posted. Companies must also prepare an annual report about complaints and file it with the local government district.
Until recently, compliance has been halfhearted at best. A 2015 survey found that 40 percent of companies had not implemented mandatory training for complaint committee members. Forty-four percent did not display the required information about penalties, and 35 percent of survey respondents were unaware of them. Some complaints have been dismissed after male supervisors accused women of filing false complaints for personal reasons. Some men have described the law as a nuisance that discourages them from hiring women.
But the dismissive attitude is changing. One local government body recently announced that it plans to serve notices and potentially fine 3,000 companies for failure to set up complaint committees or make staff aware of their existence.
Following the law is critical, and repercussions extend beyond legal penalties. Though the law provides for confidentiality for filed complaints, companies should be aware that anyone may post accusations on social media. Regardless of their ultimate outcome, they could lead to reputational damage and loss of business that could become a nightmare for any company.