At MNCs, sexual harassment complainants face uphill battle

Though Bill on protection of women against sexual harassment at workplace has been passed in LS, activists are sceptical about its impact on MNCs

Updated - November 16, 2021 10:18 pm IST

Published - March 08, 2013 02:32 am IST - Mumbai

A woman walks with her child past a billboard during a candlelight vigil in Chennai on Thursday. Powerful MNCs, which hold a clout in the market, have been accused of flouting norms with impunity when it came to their own women staffers complaining of sexual harassment at workplace.

A woman walks with her child past a billboard during a candlelight vigil in Chennai on Thursday. Powerful MNCs, which hold a clout in the market, have been accused of flouting norms with impunity when it came to their own women staffers complaining of sexual harassment at workplace.

They are powerful Multi-National Corporations (MNCs) which hold a clout in the market, but have flouted norms with impunity when it came to their own women staffers complaining of sexual harassment at workplace. Now, even as the country is set to welcome the first law for the protection of women against sexual harassment at workplace, experts are sceptical about the impact of the legislation on such MNCs.

Aditi Bojkar (name changed), a Chartered Accountant who was in her late 30s when she was working with KPMG in 2006 and holding a senior position, allegedly faced sexual harassment at the workplace. The accounting firm failed to constitute an internal committee as mandated by the Vishakha guidelines, to investigate her charges. After escalating the matter, when she saw that no action was taken in her case, she offered to resign. Her resignation was not accepted. Instead, the company terminated her services, severely hampering her prospects of future career growth.

When the matter came up in the media and other fora, the company, after terminating her services, set up an internal committee as per Vishakha guidelines. But the victim refused to appear before it. “After the company terminates the employer-employee relationship, what authority does the committee have to investigate my complaint?” she said.

On the other hand, the accused, a senior partner at the firm till recently, continued to flourish in the company. It was recently after the issue of harassment of women caught media attention and the case was revived, that he resigned from the firm. The company refused to comment whether his resignation was related to the charges of sexual harassment.

“He has left on his own accord and the firm has accepted his resignation. We have now appointed Vikram Hosangady as the head of Private Equity for KPMG. Beyond this, the matter is sub-judice , so we cannot comment on anything,” a company spokesperson told The Hindu .

Asked if the company would continue paying his legal expenses related to the sexual harassment case, the spokesperson refused to comment. KPMG is also facing a $400 million class action suit for systematic gender discrimination in the United States, according to the U.S. law firm Sanford Heisler.

Incidentally, it was KPMG which recently launched a free mobile application for women’s safety in Mumbai in collaboration with the Mumbai Police, named ICE (In Case of Emergency).Aditi knocked on the doors of the National Commission for Women, the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission, the Bombay High Court and the police to seek justice. She also had to fight a long battle against cyber defamation after a mainstream newspaper carried her real name and she was subsequently targeted with slanderous remarks in the virtual world.

“The government completely failed me. The police did not conduct timely, proper investigation. Even the investigation conducted by a committee of the State Women’s Commission derailed after some time,” she said bitterly. She rues how her right to live and work with dignity was taken away in these years.

Key evidence went missing from the State Women’s Commission as the committee began its proceedings. It is yet to be traced. “A former employee of the company had written to us testifying how the organisation did not have women-friendly policies. I had seen the letter before it went missing,” Anagha Sarpotdar, a former member of the committee, told The Hindu . She has also submitted this in writing to the commission. But two other women members of the committee wrote a letter after that stating they never saw such a testimony.

According to reports, one of those women is currently in the race for the chairpersonship of the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission. The National Commission for Women is now looking into the case again.

Activists said that in many such cases, the mighty MNCs get away even without a rap on their knuckles. “Often, the victims are more severely victimised, hounded and drained financially as well as personally by the MNCs for raising their voices,” Sonya Gill, Maharashtra Secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) said.

It happened in the case of Shahana Williams (name changed) who worked with ISS Hicare Private Limited, a Pest Management Service provider which is a part of ISS Group — one of the world’s largest facility services provider with presence in Europe, Asia, USA and Australia.

When she complained of sexual harassment, not only did the company fail to constitute an internal committee to investigate into it as per the Vishakha guidelines, but it also eventually terminated her services, slapping cases against her. She had to knock at the doors of the Bombay High Court for getting a First Information Report registered against the accused.

When asked about the case in a detailed query list emailed to the company, its spokesperson said, “We wish to state at the outset that the matter is sub-judice and hence, we do not wish to give any comment at this juncture. The allegations are completely false and baseless. In fact the accused has already filed a defamation suit against Ms. Williams and it is accepted by the court.”

The Lok Sabha recently passed the Bill on protection of women against sexual harassment at workplace. “The only advantage is that the victims can now easily approach the courts for non-implementation of the law. Litigation will be easier. But certain sections of the law may also have a negative impact. Clause 14 is about false and malicious complaint. Clause 10 is about reconciliation at pre-litigation stage. There is a possibility that the victim might be pressured to withdraw the complaint and might be threatened of action on the basis of these two clauses,” Anagha Sarpotdar, an activist and expert on the issue, said.

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