‘Safe Travels!’ we wish those travelling to distant places. It is an unhappy situation that in India, we need to wish many a woman ‘safe travels’ as she steps out to work. Well publicised instances of violence against women working in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) sector during workplace-related travel as well as some not so broadly-known experiences of women in blue collar work, point to a problem that needs to be addressed — women are not safe at the workplace and while travelling to and from them. While women may be subject to violence at any point of time, those who work at night have the additional challenge of having to find a safe mode of transport. Public transport is minimal and sporadic and other transport is dubious at best.
While initially laws relating to industries such as the Factories Act, 1948, prohibited women from working late, a growth in the ITES (Information Technology Enabled Service)-BPO (Business Process Outsourcing) and allied industries brought in changes to allow for night employment if adequate transport and safety arrangements are made by the employer. Laws like the Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act, 2013 further protect women from sexual violence at the workplace. Interestingly, the Act defines ‘workplace’ as including transportation provided by the employer to cover travel “arising out of or during” the work.
In Bengaluru, as in other cities where the BPO-ITES sectors grew exponentially, there were concerns about women being able to travel safely to and from work. The boisterous growth of the industry has meant many more employment opportunities to women, which is certainly a good thing. However, facilities catering to the needs of the workforce have not kept pace with the growth in employment.
“ Laws and policies need to bring about improvements in workplaces as well as transport facilities for women. They do not claim this as a special service, but as a basic right. ”
The Karnataka Shops and Commercial Establishments Act, 1961 requires employers to make safe and adequate transport and security provisions for its women employees. Rule 24-B(2), Form S clearly mentions that free transport with adequate security would be provided. In addition to this, screening procedures in terms of vetting the biodata and confirming the antecedents of each driver should be carried out before employment. This is applicable regardless of whether the driver is an employee of the same company (which is not usually the case) or a driver employed by an independent contractor/cab service provider (which is usually the case in the ITES-BPO sector).
Even details such as the pick up and drop schedules need to be determined by the supervisory office of the company and any last minute changes could be allowed only with the prior knowledge of the supervisory officers and the concerned employee. This is in order to ensure that individual drivers would not take women employees to locations other than the planned routes.
Security measures for safe transport
The route itself should be predetermined and designed in such a way that ordinarily no woman employee is either the first pick up or the last drop. If this is not possible, a security guard should be made available if the woman is the first or last passenger.
Many of these changes came into force after the brutal rape and murder of a BPO employee in Bengaluru in 2005. The cab was being driven by a replacement driver who claimed that the regular driver was on leave. In this case, the driver, Shiva Kumar, directly contacted her and informed her of the so called change in arrangement. The incident spurred many current changes to the law. The changes took into account the fact that having a transport facility by itself is not sufficient to protect women and upped the standards of safety.
A study by the National Commission for Women and the ASSOCHAM showed that 87 per cent of women were satisfied with the arrangements made for their travel by their employers. However, this does not detract from the fact that such transport facilities may not suit every woman, every time. She may have a deadline to meet, may be working late or may miss the scheduled drop. She may need to pick up a sick child from a nanny/relatives home, or may need to go to a place other than the established drop point. In such circumstances, the official transport may not always be convenient for her. In the absence of better, safer and affordable source of public transport, working women sometimes find themselves in situations where they are forced to depend on, or, should we say, risk the available private transport options.
Both the law and policies need to bring about improvements to work spaces as well as transport to make them safe for women, not because more women work late, but because in order to treat women as equals, their needs must also be taken into consideration. They need privacy to breastfeed children, they require safe toilets to use and places to dispose sanitary napkins. Above all, they need safe spaces to work in and a safe means of getting there and back home. Women do not claim this as a special service, but as a basic right.
(Dr. Sarasu Esther Thomas is an associate professor at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. She would like to acknowledge the contributions of Dr. Sapna Mohan and Pallavi Anantharam)