As #METOO Movement gains traction in India, the number of workplace sexual harassment complaints are likely to balloon. The pressure on employers to safeguard workplaces, is now more than ever including effective and speedy disposal of complaints of sexual harassment, in line with the spirit of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 ('Act') and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Rules, 2013 ('Rules').
Keeping with its objectives, the Act casts an obligation on employers to provide a safe workplace free from harassment including constitution of an Internal Complaints Committee ('ICC') at each office or branch of an organisation employing more than 10 employees, for receiving and redressal of complaints of sexual harassment. The non-compliance with this mandatory provision of the Act amongst other mandatory provisions, also attracts a penalty, including imposition of a fine and withdrawal, non-renewal or cancellation of business licences, as the case may be, in case of repeated non-compliance.
As of date, the ICC is the competent authority within an organisation to receive complaints of sexual harassment. In addition, the Ministry of Women & Child Development, Government of India in 2017 introduced SHe-Box, an online complaint system. A complaint can be lodged with the SHe-Box at http://www.shebox.nic.in/. The SHe-Box provides a single window access to every woman, irrespective of her work status, whether working in an organised or unorganised, private or public sector, to facilitate the registration of complaints related to sexual harassment at workplace. Apart from the remedy available under the Act, the Indian Penal Code 1860 under §354A recognises sexual harassment as a penal offence.
The Act provides a limitation period within which a complaint of sexual harassment can be lodged with an ICC. In this regard, §9(1) of the Act prescribes a statutory limit of 3 months from the date of the incident or in case of a series of incidents, 3 months from the last date of the incident complained of. The Act, however, provides for departure from the statutory limitation period for an extended period of 3 months, if the ICC, for reasons recorded in writing, is satisfied that the circumstances were such that prevented the woman from filing a complaint within the limitation period. In effect the maximum limit envisaged for lodging a complaint with an ICC recognised by the Act is that of 6 months.
In the wake of the #Metoo movement, the ICC's are likely to receive complaints which are beyond the recognised statutory limitation period. A clarity on whether the ICC is competent to receive and take cognizance of complaints which are lodged beyond this 6 month period is unclear at the moment. Until the time that clarifications are provided by the Ministry of Women & Child Development on the limitation issue, one option which organisations may consider is to address such complaints through either the ICC or disciplinary inquiry channels under their internal policies and procedures.
The need of the hour is for organisations and top management to conduct gender sensitization workshops for its employees at regular intervals towards creating awareness of the nuances of sexual harassment and familiarizing its employees with the provisions of the Act. Further, training of the ICC members can be an effective tool to ensure efficient and effective complaint handling at an organisational level.
The objective continues to be, to effectively deal with any sexual harassment complaints and matters that come to light and provide a safe working environment to all.
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