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Improving access to redress for workers vulnerable to violence and harassment in South Asia

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This page was written by Devyani Srinivasan, Meena Vaidyanathan, Dr. Meghna Ranganathan

A view of South Asia from space.

Devyani Srinivasan, Meena Vaidyanathan and Dr. Megan Ranganathan discuss the factors that make some workers more vulnerable than others to violence and harassment.

1 in 5 1 in 5

One in five people globally report having experienced some form of violence or harassment at work.

Understanding gender, financial and migrational vulnerabilities

One in five people globally report having experienced some form of violence or harassment at work, but what are factors that make some workers more vulnerable than others?

Based on the 2021 World Risk Poll report 'Safe at Work? Global experiences of violence and harassment', we know that while men are marginally more exposed at a global level, for a third of women who reported violence or harassment at work, there was a sexual element to this experience. The second World Risk Poll ‘Focus On’ report also drew attention to the importance of financial and migration status (the latter measured by proxy of being foreign-born or not), as two factors that make them vulnerable.

Financial and migration status in South Asia

As social sector researchers who work on the issues of both migration and sexual harassment in India, we were particularly interested in the findings from the Poll that compared South Asian workers’ experiences of violence and harassment, based on their financial and migration status.  Similar to global averages, in South Asia those who were financially struggling were more likely to say they had experienced some form of violence or harassment at work. While the difference in experience between native and foreign-born workers in South Asia was small, the latter group was much less likely to tell someone about it. Although workers in India were not asked about their migration status, we believe that if they had been, just like in the rest of South Asia we would have found low levels of reporting among them.

The obstacle that migrants face due to language barriers in reporting violence and harassment is not unique to India (see a discussion of similar challenges in Northern America, Australia and New Zealand here). However, due to India’s linguistic and cultural diversity, this assumes great importance both for inter-state (domestic) migrants and for those who are foreign-born. According to The Economic Survey of India 2017, approximately nine million people migrate within India each year. Of the destination states, the majority have their own state language.

Given this diversity, we believe that if the Poll were to disaggregate inter-state migrants in India, we would find that levels of reporting violence and harassment to duty-bearers such as the police in destination states would be even lower than global averages (which are already low at approximately 10-20%). While future iterations of the Poll would benefit from including a question about domestic migration, in-depth, qualitative research is also required to better understand reporting and access to redress from the perspectives of both workers and employers.

Surprisingly, the Poll found that in South Asia, financially comfortable, native-born workers were the least likely to tell someone about experiencing violence and harassment. In contrast, native-born workers who described themselves as financially struggling were the most likely to tell someone.  Foreign-born workers who reported financially struggling were somewhere in-between.  These results suggest that the issue is complicated and would benefit from research on how financial and migration status affect access to redress from the perspectives of migrants themselves.

India’s Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act

Finally, specifically in relation to sexual harassment in India, we would be remiss if we were not to mention the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act and its role in affecting access to redress. On the one hand, the Act holds both employers and district governments responsible for prevention and redress (through creating awareness of sexual harassment and constituting response committees), but on the other hand its potential is limited by its inconsistent implementation, as well as its exclusion of male survivors. Despite the existence of the Act since 2013, in India reporting of violence and harassment to duty-bearers is still low, regardless of financial status, as shown by the Poll results. While this is consistent with the global results, it is disappointing that the Act has not had more of an impact in creating safe workspaces over the last decade. Given that there are multiple reasons for the inconsistent implementation of the Act, it is necessary to investigate these barriers from the perspectives of duty-bearers, as well to understand their own perceptions of sexual harassment.

Civil society and private sector organisations in India have recognised that establishing redress systems and training response committees are ways in which implementation of the Act can be improved, and efforts are already underway to do so. While we recognise that training cannot, on its own, fully address all the complexities of power and hierarchy in which an issue such as sexual harassment is rooted, it is a valuable entry point for research-informed interventions to improve access to redress for the most vulnerable workers.