Going Beyond Lip Service to Women’s Rights at The Workplace

When the ‘Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace’ Act was passed in March 2010, the response in many people was one mixed with surprise and relief. It was surprising that it took this long for the legislation to come through or that it did not exist before, and a relief that at last some recourse could be offered to many victims of harassment at the workplace.

Alliance Against Sexual Harassment (AASHA) first drafted a code of conduct in 2003 and tested it at organisations such as Attock Refinery, McDonalds and Shell. Apart from the private sector, some labour unions, civil society organizations and government departments were also consulted and AASHA presented the final version to the government in March 2008. The cabinet made some changes and formally approved it in February 2009. It was then tabled in the National Assembly in April and handed over to the law and women’s development committees. The President signed the bill on March 9, 2010 and the Act was successfully passed.

Under the Act, every organization including federal and provincial government ministries, departments, corporations, educational institutions, private commercial organisations and registered civil society associations, has to set up an inquiry committee of three people comprising of at least one woman, that will investigate complaints of sexual harassment internally. The inquiry committee has to issue a verdict within thirty days. It may refer to an ombudsperson for appropriate action. A route of appeal also exists for any party aggrieved with the decision of the ombudsperson.

Penalties Under the Act

The fine print details major and minor penalties for those prosecuted under the act. Major penalties include demotion to a lower post or a lower stage on a timescale, compulsory retirement, removal or dismissal from service and a fine which will partially be paid to the complainant as compensation.

Minor penalties include censure, withholding of promotion or increment, stoppage at an efficiency bar in a timescale or other fitness to cross such a bar and recovery of compensation payable to complainant from salary or any other source of income of the accused party.

Some Ambiguities in the Law

Several concerns from previous legislation involving women’s rights can be reiterated here. Can this law be used against women? In the case of false accusations it says that the ombudsperson will direct appropriate action but precedent reveals in a society that is structured to privilege men and where women are on the peripheries of power, it is neither difficult nor incredible to prove that the complainant is a lying, manipulative gold digger.

Moreover, the law rightfully attempts to be supportive of women who face harassment because women are by and large the victims in such cases, but it should not be assumed that the victim is always a woman and that the accused party is always a man. It is not impossible to imagine that a male employee can just as well be harassed, sexually or otherwise, by a male superior or a scenario where a woman in a powerful position ends up being the bully.

The law leaves a lot of ambiguity in what constitutes as harassment at the workplace. It is also unclear whether the nature of harassment will warrant the punishment ascribed in a specific case. While there are countless cases of extreme dehumanising harassment that merit the major penalties outlined but will repeated phone calls or inappropriate conversations in the workplace also lead to demotions and salary cuts?

If one leaves jargon aside, harassment is mistreatment and unsolicited attention at the very basic level. How these levels of mistreatment and non consensual are deconstructed and addressed is a very grey area and it is up to the discretion of inquiry committees in every organisation to define it for itself.

The Role of Corporate Social Responsibility

This brings us to the role that organisations can play in facilitating and implementing this law internally. While it is an issue that affects hiring, firing and compensation policies, it should not be a task relegated solely to Human Resource departments. It is very much in the interest of Corporate Social Responsibility, that companies take care of their employees’ mental and physical wellbeing and protect them from harassment.

Corporate Social Responsibility departments in every company should actively be involved in creating awareness of the law within the workplace; formulating specific guidelines on how to report cases and get support in their own organisations; espousing an environment of trust and care; and finally, keeping in mind cultural sensibilities, assert anonymity in cases and be sensitive to the needs and concerns of both the victims and the accused parties.

USAID Pakistan’s FIRMS project is in the process of finalising an initiative to improve working conditions for women in Pakistan by introducing a competitive ranking among organizations.

It should not be assumed that the victim is always a woman and that the accused party is always a man. It is not impossible to imagine that a male employee can just as well be harassed, sexually or otherwise, by a male superior or a scenario where a woman in a powerful position ends up being the bully

This initiative will draw on the Protection against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act, but details on the design and implementation of the project are not available just yet as it is still under consideration for adoption.

If and when it is implemented, chances are the ranking will be disseminated in a high profile manner to ensure maximum exposure. If implemented, this initiative is anticipated to complement and supplement enforcement of the law by providing a soft incentive to employers. Hard incentives will still need to be offered by the government for the bill to have any practical impact on the working conditions for women.

Maleeha Azeem, a Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist for the Gender component at USAID Pakistan’s FIRMS Project is of the view that implementation of the law is not promising unless enforced, or at least encouraged, by Law and that its effects will not be visible for at least the next year and half at least. “This is like a couple deciding to have a baby; they’ve named the baby but haven’t even conceived it yet. I think that’s where we are with the workplace harassment bill right now,” says Azeem.

A final point has to do with the fact that informal sector does not come under the jurisdiction of the workplace harassment. While it is necessary that social progress starts somewhere, the informal sector should not be left behind. As an unfortunate caveat, it is also worth pointing out that relatively speaking the informal sector does not hire as many women so the law should first tweak and refine the formal processes in organisations that seem to have some semblance of those processes.

Like every piece of legislation, Protection against Harassment of Women in the Workplace Act, brings with it a string of challenges and red flags that should be debated both within the organisations it affects and in public discourse. Whether or not it is truly a progressive move depends on the number of cases that come forward and effective implementation of the legislation in providing redress to victims of workplace harassment. One can only hope that it doesn’t fall into the familiar territory of the Hudood Ordinance which was masquera ded as aiming to protect women’s honour and safety but ended up creating more victims rather than helping the existing ones.

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Author Information

Rabayl Manzoor is a development economist and self-identified feminist working with Rural Support Programmes in Sindh for Monitoring, Evaluation and Research of the Landless Peasants Project. She also volunteers at Gender Interactive Alliance that works for the rights of transgender people in Pakistan. She's based in Karachi and can be reached at rabayl@gmail.com

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