Field Notes of a PoSH Trainer: Unravelling Class Differences
THE Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, (PoSH) was passed in 2013. It came after a series of protests and petitions filed by activists in the landmark case of Vishaka versus State of Rajasthan. The legislation is inspired by the guidelines laid out by the Supreme Court in its judgment in the matter in 1997.
The law is almost a decade old now. Although the impact of this law is manifold in terms of preventing sexual harassment at the workplace, this Act also opened a plethora of opportunities for those businesses which provide skill or compliance-based training to corporate entities.
I was pleasantly surprised by the commitment and sincerity that I discerned from corporate houses on sexual harassment. On the other hand, in many political movements, even a conversation about sexual harassment creates unease among most of our allies.
PoSH (Prevention of Sexual Harassment) training and its awareness has become a commodity. Presently, the queue of firms hired by corporates to provide such services is long. Their services include: training employees, managers, and Internal Committee (‘IC’) members, consultation on specific complaints, making annual reports, and providing external IC members.
Each section of the “PoSH Act” has been diligently converted into a commodity.
I happen to work with one such organization. My designation says ‘Manager – Content and Development (Legal)’, and my job entails everything I just mentioned above, and more.
My previous stints with this Act were limited to the political spaces of a few youth organizations. As I am a survivor of sexual harassment at a political youth organization, I was thorough with this Act, often debating with my fellow activists and allies the loopholes and lacunae of the Act.
Debunking of my own preconceived notions
When I took it up professionally, I feared that my job would further distance justice from gender. This kind of outsourcing felt like an attempt to abscond from their responsibility of creating a safe space. On the contrary, I was pleasantly surprised by the commitment and sincerity that I discerned from corporate houses on sexual harassment.
In the lack of continuous open dialogue and debate against patriarchy in any political organization, mechanical copy-pasting of how corporates are dealing with the Act will only be performative and not in consonance with the spirit of the Act.
I had this belief that any corporate house would be inclined to use its IC to quieten or dismiss any complainant. However, I had female IC members asking me about up to what extent an IC could exercise its powers, and if they could conduct a lie detector or narcotic test on the accused.
On the other hand, in many political movements, even a conversation about sexual harassment creates unease among most of our allies. Some even feel that this conversation is dispensable for the sake of some ‘greater cause’.
Bear in mind the weight of accountability placed upon corporates through this compliance-based Act. They have to file an annual report to the Deputy Commissioner’s/District Collector’s office, record pictures of training and awareness campaigns for compliance to go for an initial public offering, and have gender diversity at their workspace for better productivity and boosting their “brand”. So it did not hurt their budget to undertake such training and services, taking into account their long-term goals and profit. In such a space, the IC may look like a boon to women who can keep confidentiality of their complaints and demand equitable treatment without compromising on their means of livelihood.
But when it comes to political organizations, they have a moral responsibility to prohibit such acts of harassment, discrimination and abuse. Not just within their ranks and file, but also within the society at large, by striving to become a tool of such a change. However, an IC formed in any political party would only serve to hide this failure as a party, than to benefit the complainant. Therefore, in the lack of continuous open dialogue and debate against patriarchy in any political organization, mechanical copy-pasting of how corporates are dealing with the Act will only be performative and not in consonance with the spirit of the Act.
Difference in attitudes of white-collar and blue-collar workers
Secondly, I was also baffled by the questions I encountered during these sessions. Predominantly the line of questioning taken by the male audience in white-collar groups seemingly came from a place of insecurity. Here are some of the most common questions: “What if our friendly compliment is received to be a sly comment?”, “Why are the women still allowed to go to the police from the route of IPC (Indian Penal Code), when there is already a law and a committee in place for the same?”, and “If the women register an FIR (first information report) under IPC and the company also terminates under the PoSH Act, is not the same person being punished twice for the same crime?” I took this to be a universal male phenomenon.
But one time, I did a session amongst factory workers and labourers at a warehouse of a manufacturing company, in Jhajjar, Haryana. The workers predominantly consisted of men, who worked as in-line labourers; some of them were illiterate.
I realized the magnitude of exploitation faced by women labourers, and the degree of frustration and helplessness felt by their male co-workers against the lala.
I apprehended that a conversation on sexual harassment, consent and gender stereotyping might not be received or understood well in this group. I was happy to be wrong again. Not only did they actively engage in the entire session, but none of their queries came from a place of insecurity (as I had previously experienced white-collar men).
Contradicting my beliefs, they were happy to know that such an Act exists and wanted to learn more about how they could safeguard their female colleagues from getting exploited by the “Lala” (owner of the enterprise). They posed queries such as: “What if the accused is a friend of our Lala ?”, and “How can the IC go against Lala’s wish?”. It was hard to convince them that the IC, having a majority of female members, with an external member, and its annual reporting system makes it more powerful than their lala.
That day made me realize the magnitude of exploitation faced by women labourers, and the degree of frustration and helplessness felt by their male co-workers against the lala. Such a kind of helplessness is unlikely to be experienced by a male white-collar manager for his female colleagues. More often than not, he is inclined to be sympathetic towards the accused because that is where he stands and identifies himself as a class.
But amongst workers, I saw male workers standing beside their female colleagues (as a class) against the common oppressor, the lala.
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