Interns, Sexual Harassment and the Law

With successive cases of sexual harassment of interns coming out of the woodwork, it is helpful to look at the kind of policies India has in place against sexual harassment at the workplace, and how these apply to interns. There is indeed a specific law to prevent and deal with sexual harassment at the workplace – it is called The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013.

Intern Sexual Harassment

Are my employer and I covered under this Act?

The good news is that the act covers all women, whether employed or not. It also mentions that trainees and apprentices are covered. Employers are defined as all organizations and undertakings, public and private. Even places visited by the employee as part of her work, and transportation provided by the organization, are covered. The bill covers the unorganized sector and establishments employing less than 10 people as well.

What is defined as sexual harassment?

In short, the Act defines three kind of sexual harassment: promising or threatening preferential or detrimental treatment in employment, respectively ; interference with work and creating a hostile work environment ; meting out humiliating treatment likely to affect the woman’s health or safety.

What is my employer required to do?

  1. Your employer is required to set up an Internal Complaints Committee headed by a woman employee . They are required to do this in writing . (Section 4 of the Act)
  2. They are required to, rather vaguely, “provide a safe working environment”.
  3. They must, at a visible place in the office, display the penal consequences of sexual harassment and the fact that a committee exists
  4. They must organize awareness programs. Employers are liable to pay a fine of up to Rs. 50,000 for failure to comply with the above.

What is my government required to do?

Your local government  is also required to set up a complaints committee for cases where an organization might not have a committee. (Section 5 of the Act)

How does the complaint mechanism work?

Complaints must be submitted in writing (if possible) to the committee . They will first attempt conciliation between the woman and the accused. However, they are not allowed to make a monetary settlement at this stage. If that does not work, they initiate an inquiry into the matter. The identity of the woman is not to be disclosed to the public. Action can be taken against the woman if it is established that made a false complaint with malicious intent, but lack of proof is not enough to prove malicious intent.

What happens if an offence is proved?

  1. The offences under this act are non-cognizable, which means that a police officer cannot arrest an accused without orders from a court .
  2. The committee can decide to deduct a certain amount from the salary of the accused and pay it to the woman, or directly order him to pay.
  3. The woman can choose the criminal prosecution route lodge a police complaint, in which case the employer is required to provide her assistance.

What about men?

The Act does not cover men as victims at all. The issue of gender neutrality in sexual harassment laws has been debated wildly, and the crux of this debate is the interest of fairness on one side and the fears of misuse by already powerful men on the other side. Far from covering sexual harassment of men by women, the Act does not even cover harassment of men by men – both serious oversights, in my opinion.

How do we compare to other countries?

Legally, we’re doing quite well – apart from, of course, the exclusion of men. There aren’t any major loopholes in the Act about employees and employers, and there is actually a monetary punishment for not forming a committee. According to New York City law, for example, unpaid interns are not covered by the law against sexual harassment at the workplace. We’ve at least covered that – now it’s time to draw your employer’s attention toward the Act and get a committee constituted.

The complete Act: http://wcd.nic.in/wcdact/womenactsex.pdf

Image taken from: http://images.indiatvnews.com/crimecrime/Another-intern-4970.jpg

Jaai Vipra

About author: – Jaai Vipra studies economics, loves law and is married to the Arts. A year-long stint with Internshala makes her want to keep coming back and so we let her write articles for us sometimes.

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