A Decade of POSH Act: Increase in Harassment Reports and the Missing Committees in Small Firms

The Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment Act is a legislation enacted by the Government of India in 2013 to address the issue of sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace. The Act aims to create a safe and conducive work environment for women and provide protection against sexual harassment.
A Decade of POSH Act: Increase in Harassment Reports and the Missing Committees in Small Firms
Blog/People Matter

New Delhi- It's a sad reality that women in the workforce still face numerous challenges. Safe workspaces, free from harassment, bullying, and abuse, are essential for everyone to work with dignity. Sexual harassment at the workplace is not just a violation of dignity and fundamental rights; it's a devastating blow to women's ability to participate in the economy equally.

For women who already navigate countless barriers, harassment is a severe and unjust obstacle that shatters their confidence and impedes their right to work in a safe, respectful environment.

Research titled ‘A decade of the POSH Act: What the data tells us about how India Inc. has fared’ by Akshi Chawla, director of Centre for Economic Data and Analysis provides a look at the act and the number of cases in the last decade.

The POSH Act is a legislation enacted by the Government of India in 2013 to address the issue of sexual harassment faced by women in the workplace. The Act aims to create a safe and conducive work environment for women and provide protection against sexual harassment.

The analysis is based on data from 300 listed companies on the National Stock Exchange (NSE). To ensure a diverse and representative sample, the selected companies include 100 with the highest market capitalization (ranks 1 to 100), another 100 from the middle range (ranks 957 to 1,056), and the remaining 100 from lower ranks (1,914 to 2,013). This approach enables the analysis to extend beyond just a few well-known and large corporations, providing a broader perspective on the issues.

Over the years, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of sexual harassment cases reported under the POSH Act in Indian companies. Even before the POSH Act's implementation, some companies were voluntarily reporting the number of complaints as part of their business responsibility reports. For instance, in FY 2012-13, 12 companies reported 71 cases of sexual harassment.

With the POSH Act coming into effect in FY 2013-14, the number of reported cases rose significantly. That year, 161 cases were reported across the companies in focus. The following year, this number surged to 465.

CEDA Calculations based on data collected from company reports

The trend of increasing reports continued annually until FY 2020-21, when the pandemic hit. During that year, 586 cases were reported, a decrease from the 961 cases reported in the previous year. However, the numbers rebounded to 767 in FY 2021-22, and then saw a significant 51.2 percent increase to 1,160 cases in FY 2022-23.

The resolution of these cases has not kept pace with the rising number of complaints. In FY 2013-14, 109 complaints were resolved, which increased to 406 in FY 2014-15. Despite the growing number of reported cases, the rate of resolution has often lagged.

For example, in FY 2016-17, reported cases increased by 12.9 percent compared to the previous year, but the number of resolved cases decreased by 2.1 percent.

Since FY 2020-21, the gap between reported and resolved cases has widened significantly. Companies are also required to disclose the number of unresolved and pending complaints at the end of each financial year.

Although inquiries into complaints are mandated to be completed within ninety days, the number of pending cases has been increasing.

Notably, the number of pending cases is smaller than the gap between reported and resolved cases, likely due to factors such as the withdrawal of complaints or the departure of either the complainant or the accused from the company.

A striking observation is that a small share of companies reports the majority of sexual harassment cases. In FY 2022-23, 1,160 cases were reported by just 81 out of 300 companies in the dataset, meaning 219 companies reported no cases under the POSH Act that year. Remarkably, 50 percent of these cases came from just eight companies.

This pattern is consistent over the years. Since the POSH Act's inception in FY 2013-14, only a few companies have reported complaints, with many companies reporting zero complaints year after year.

CEDA Calculations based on data collected from company reports

Additionally, some companies have not disclosed any numbers in their annual reports, despite mandatory requirements and financial penalties for non-compliance.

Between 98-100 percent of reported cases came from the "Large" companies (top 100 by market capitalization on the NSE), while about 1-2 percent were from "Mid-range" companies, and "Small" companies reported no cases.

This could be due to larger companies having more employees and resources to address sexual harassment, whereas smaller companies may not fall under the act's purview or have fewer incidents.

However, firm size alone does not explain the low number of cases. Despite some "Small" companies not reporting any cases, several top 100 companies also reported zero cases. In FY 2022-23, 27 top 100 companies reported zero cases of sexual harassment, with 14 of these companies consistently reporting zero cases since the act came into force.

Even then, there are multiple organizations in the nation which still do not have a POSH committee. The Mooknayak talked to some females about their workplace in order to understand more. For the sake of their privacy, the names of the respondents and their organizations are kept anonymous.

Respondent A, who works with a consultancy firm based in the southern state of Tamil Nadu stated that there is no POSH committee in their organization but they “do follow POSH guidelines.”

On being asked the protocol to report harassment at workplace, she said, “We have not been made clear of any protocols as of yet. But if something happens, we are supposed to directly reach out to the founder.”

The same has been said by the second respondent who works at an alternate media agency. She claimed that the Editor-in-Chief deals with complaints of harassment and abuse at workplace.

According to her, there is not even a functional Human Resource department, so having a POSH committee “feels like a farfetched dream.”

Another respondent C who works with a non-profit stated that their organization has held talks about the importance of consent regularly, but there is no committee to look after such specific issues.

Respondent D provided hope when she talked about the POSH proceedings at her organization. Working for a developmental organization, she said that the POSH committee had three internal members, a legal expert and a POSH expert.

“One post is also reserved for people from the Non-Binary/Trans community which adds to the diversity, as many POSH committees elsewhere only have cis women on board,” revealed the respondent.

When discussing about a workplace, we often picture an office environment with desks and cubicles. However, for many individuals, private homes also serve as workplaces—a reality that is frequently overlooked.

According to the All-India Central Council of Trade Unions, domestic workers, who often work in isolation without the support of colleagues, are highly vulnerable to various forms of exploitation, including sexual harassment.

While the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, theoretically offers protection, the absence of local committees to handle complaints makes this protection ineffective in many areas.

Shreya, a member of the Sangrami-Gharelu Kaamgar Union, emphasized that multiple unions advocating for domestic workers have been calling for specific laws to safeguard their rights and dignity. These laws would recognize private households as workplaces, thereby extending the necessary protections to domestic workers.

What is POSH?

In February 2013, the Indian Parliament took a significant step toward ensuring women's safety and equal participation in the workforce by passing the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, commonly known as the POSH Act.

This landmark legislation, which came into effect on December 9, 2013, aims to protect women from sexual harassment at their workplaces and establishes comprehensive mechanisms for grievance and redressal in case such incidents occur.

The POSH Act delineates the responsibilities of employers, emphasizing the need for transparency and accountability. One of the critical requirements is the disclosure of data on complaints related to sexual harassment in the companies' annual reports.

This mandate was reinforced in 2018 when the Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) required all listed companies to include information on cases of sexual harassment in their annual reports.

The mandatory disclosure of this data is a crucial component of the law, serving as an important accountability measure. By requiring companies to report on sexual harassment cases, the legislation aims to ensure that employers take their responsibilities seriously and that incidents are not swept under the rug.

This transparency is intended to facilitate effective tracking and monitoring of the law's implementation, providing valuable insights into its efficacy and the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment across different sectors.

However, more than a decade after the enactment of the POSH Act, a significant gap remains. Despite the mandatory disclosure requirements, there is no centralized, publicly accessible repository that consolidates this data from across employers and companies.

Instead, the information is dispersed across individual company reports, often presented in formats that are not standardized or user-friendly. This fragmentation makes it exceedingly difficult to compile and analyze the data comprehensively, hindering efforts to identify industry-wide trends and patterns in workplace sexual harassment.

The lack of a centralized database poses several challenges. For one, it impedes researchers, policymakers, and advocates from gaining a clear and holistic understanding of the issue. Without aggregated data, it is challenging to assess the overall effectiveness of the POSH Act, identify sectors with higher incidences of harassment, or determine which companies are failing to comply with the law.

Furthermore, the absence of a unified platform for this information undermines the potential for public accountability and pressures companies to improve their practices.

To address these issues, there is a pressing need for the creation of a centralized, publicly accessible repository that collates data on sexual harassment complaints from all employers and companies covered under the POSH Act.

Such a repository would not only enhance transparency and accountability but also enable more effective monitoring and enforcement of the law. It would allow stakeholders to track progress, identify gaps, and implement targeted interventions to create safer, more equitable workplaces for women across India.

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