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Are Women Who Work in the Informal Sector Safe?

The recent recommendations to amend the Sexual Harassment at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal Act, 2013), commonly known as the POSH Act, have brought back the focus on the purpose and efficacy of the redressal mechanism at district level, namely the Local Committee.


While the bill introduced in the Rajya Sabha this month does not include the recommendations regarding the Local Committee, previous reports have highlighted how the district level mechanisms have not really functioned as envisioned, particularly in the context of being a redressal mechanism for the informal sector

A glaring gap here is the lack of awareness amongst women who work in the informal sector and the absence of efforts by the Local Committee to create awareness. According to a 2019 report titled “Status and Functioning of Local Complaints Committees under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Protection and Redressal) Act, 2013 and awareness levels among women in the work force”, conducted by SAFMA and submitted to the National Human Rights Commission of India, which looked at the states of Delhi, Haryana and Orissa, given below is the status of the Local Committees in the districts of Haryana (then called Local Complaints Committee or LCC) -

While one sees that Gurugram has been the most active or effective, the lack of training or awareness initiatives was evident even there. The report states that “The lack of awareness is at two levels; firstly, women are not aware of the law, and secondly they are unaware of the forum for redressal of grievances related to sexual harassment at the workplace.”

29-year-old Sabina, is an example of the thousands of women who work as domestic workers in the high-rises and apartments of Gurugram. She was born and raised in Daulatpur, West Bengal and describe herself as a naughty, young child growing up. She loved doing the opposite of what she was told. She didn’t want to study and was often found missing school.  She married young but completed her graduation after that in the Humanities in the local college.

As a twenty-two-year old young mother of a six month old child, she came to Gurgaon with her husband and parents-in-law. She wanted to take up a job but couldn’t because of her baby. She began to work as a domestic worker, in 2017. 

Sabina. Source: Neha Pradhan Arora

Since then she has worked in over 25 houses in the same area comprising two apartment complexes. She was introduced to one house by a neighbor who was already working in the apartment complex, “on good faith” she says. She didn’t know much work then but learned. Today she works in 4 houses and is known for her dependability and her efficiency at work. Whether it is cleaning, dusting, washing clothes or utensils, looking after a child or assisting a senior citizen, she recognizes that this work gets her more money for hard work done in less time. The physical hardship makes it tough but she is happy with the homes she works in now. When asked why she left some of her earlier work, she was quick to admit that only a few she had left of her own accord.  Most people had left the complex or needed full-time help and got a caretaker. She left one place because they did not give her, her salary on time. 

There was only one time, when she felt unsafe in one of the homes where she worked. This was a guesthouse, for a corporate. There was a caretaker who stayed there and guests who came and stayed for short periods. One evening when she went to work, one of the guests was very drunk. She also saw a lot of alcohol bottles in the trash. “I finished my work quickly and left that day”. 

She went home and spoke to her family about the situation. They advised her to see if the guest is drunk again the next day before taking any action. “I took my mother-in-law and my child when I went the next day and saw many more bottles in the trash. He was still very drunk so I quit the job and left with them.” 

That is the only time she has felt unsafe. She has also heard of other domestic workers who have felt unsafe in similar guesthouses in the same apartment complex. “There was one maid who worked in a house where the ‘bhaiya’ supervised the work as the ‘didi’ worked and was out of the house. She said he followed her around as she worked and made her feel uncomfortable.” 

“She left the job because he did something to her. I don’t know what she did or where she is now. I think she’s moved out of this place.” 

The only option for workers like her is to complain to the Manager at the Clubhouse / Office of the Apartment. That is where they can complain about anything wrong that happens but she did not know what steps can be or have been taken. 

When asked if she knew of a law or any place where women like her can complain about being sexually harassed at the workplace, her answer was no. She feels women need to stand up for themselves if something happens. They should complain to the Manager and not keep quiet.

While her confidence, sense of dignity and ability to speak up make her a courageous and hard-working young woman, neither her education nor her situation have given her the awareness of her rights or the state mechanisms for protection and redressal. She is able to keep herself safe because she is able to speak for herself and has a supportive family that trusts and believes in her. Most women do not have either. It is hence important that the Local Committees or organisations identified by the same are able to equip women in the workforce with information and awareness to be able to call out sexual harassment at the workplace, no matter what the workplace is. 

Given a choice, Sabina wants to set up her own shop and sell cosmetics. She feels the need for these products is huge and they sell fast. Perhaps, in her own way, she wants more and more women to be able to stand independently on their own feet, speak up and demand for themselves, even as they buy products to feel and look beautiful!

Written by Neha Pradhan Arora

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