Different manifestations of sexual harassment faced by women in unorganized sector
According to a poll done by Oxfam India in 2012, among women who are most prone to sexual harassment in their workplaces, 29% are laborers, 23% are domestic workers and 16 % work in small scale industries.  The elements of job quality, job security, good working conditions and remuneration proportionate with the work, loyalty to worker’s rights, social protection are missing for women working in the unorganized sector. Thus, women in unorganized sector face and deal with sexual harassment in a different way compared to their counterparts in organized sector. The different forms of sexual harassment faced by women working in unorganized sector are:
Gender based hierarchy
There needs to be a distinction made between sexual harassment and sex based harassment. Harassment is not necessarily about sexuality or sexual desire; rather it can be to assert power of one sex over the other. Male workers are prone to misbehaving or harassing the women specially
Caste and class based hierarchy
There is a power structure in place – the subordinates and the eventual victims of sexual harassment overwhelmingly are women from economically weaker sections, often Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, while the supervisors and management are men of better economic and social standing. Domestic work is often embedded within socio-cultural structures, which may make it difficult for employers to see themselves as such. Moreover, issues of gender, class, ethnicity and caste also come into play heightening the weak bargaining power of domestic workers.
Ordinariness of the offence
In unorganized sector like small factories women have over generations learnt to be submissive and to put up with the lewd remarks, the physical punishments and the crude manhandling and sexual assaults simply because they need to earn a livelihood. Thus sexual and physical harassment is so routine and something which has to be tolerated that no formal complaint is ever made. This toleration of sexual harassment is mainly because of the financial insecurity of the victim. Even if there is repeated sexual assault they do not have a choice but to take it as an “occupational hazard”.
Unrecognized workplaces and unknown employees
Not all workplaces are recognized by statutory authorities and the employees in those workplaces are just blank faces to authorities. Domestic workers are invisible as workers and isolated from others because the physical workspace is also the private household. The relationship between employer and employee is highly unequal, leaving many domestic workers vulnerable to verbal, physical or sexual abuse by their employers. Small unregistered factories which still use child labour operate in most discreet way possible. The women workers here are often bonded labourers who are working to pay off their parents’ debt. They cannot escape. It is not that owners of these “factories” do not know the law; they know it and they take full precautions to avoid getting caught. This employer- employee relationship actually functions like a Master- Servant relationship.
Harassment by third party
In unorganized sector, the relationship between employer and employee is not direct. The contract is made with a third party of agent and so the exploitation runs beyond the employer-employee relationship. For daily wage labourers and construction workers, the streets are their work place. From lewd remarks and indecent signalling to severe forms of sexual assault, these women face all due to lack of security at the premises they work at. Streets do not come under any employer’s purview or often these workers do not have any employer only (hawkers and vendors). A stranger harassing these women at their workplace while they are working is something not addressed by the law recognizing only defined employer-employee set up.
Lack of a support system
Violations of basic human rights of physical security and subsistence of workers are common in unorganized sector. High level of insecurity, deplorable wages, unregulated working hours, wage differentials between men and women for the same job, low and falling work participation rates of women, no provident fund or pension, no maternity benefits , no minimum hygiene standards are some examples of poor working conditions of unorganized sector. Lack of a social security system makes these women workers so vulnerable and dependent on goodwill of their employers that they choose to suffer sexual harassment silently.
Work outside the scope of legal and institutional framework
Employment agencies for domestic workers and contract- based daily wage workers violate several laws, including Bonded Labour Act, Child Labour Act and Juvenile Justice Act. These agencies are not registered bodies, labour department or the police. They have no license. Employers treat the domestic workers as slaves. As articulated by the International Labour Conference in its 2002 Resolution concerning decent work and the informal economy, the challenge of reducing decent work deficits is greatest where work is performed outside the scope or application of the legal and institutional frameworks. This situation is worsened with lack of awareness on workers’ part also about the laws which can improve their working conditions and protect their rights.
Associated problems with Migration
Concentration of economic opportunities in urban places has caused the displacement of women workers and pushed them further in a life of poverty and vulnerability. Most of the women who migrate to cities are from poor families and because of their inexperience and lack of skill they become easy victims of exploitation. Sexual exploitation is just one form of discrimination they face due to their illiteracy, lack of awareness and agency.
In contrast to organized sector, a worker in an unorganized sector do not have a value attached to her. In a country like India, where cheap labour is abundant, workers in an unorganized sector are replaceable. Thus, employers do not have any economic cost to cater to and there is no incentive for compliance with sexual harassment laws.
Sexual division of labour
According to the National Domestic Workers’ Movement [NDWM], an estimated 20 million people work as domestic workers throughout the country. Of these workers, 90 percent are women. The socio – economic conditions of women workers in South Asia are poor because they are concentrated in low paid occupations. Informal systems of work are promoted and encouraged among the poor working women. This fact reinforces sexual division of labour within the world of work in the backdrop of caste and class. The upward mobility of women is thus restricted which in turn limits their escape from exploitative unorganized sector.
While sexual harassment at workplace is all pervasive, the women in unorganized sector are more vulnerable than the women with a better economic and social standing and working in organized sector. Further, women in unorganized sector are more susceptible to sexual harassment due to lack of awareness of any legislation regarding sexual harassment. The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal ) Act 2013 is the most important legislation addressing the issue of sexual harassment. The scope of the Act covers both organized and unorganized sector. Awareness about the law and its proper implementation to a large extent empowers women in unorganized sector to deal with cases of Sexual Harassment in a better and more informed way.
 Social and Rural Research Institute (2012), ‘Sexual Harassment at Workplace in India’, study supported by Oxfam India, Delhi: SRI
Author: This post has been submitted by Prerna Seerwani, as part of her assignment with Ungender Insights. Prerna Seerwani is currently a student of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad.