4. Sexual harassment committees
Setting up an internal sexual harassment committee can be one way to ensure that there is a confidential procedure for complaints to be made and handled. In unionized workplaces sexual harassment committees and their membership can be specified in collective bargaining agreements. In non-unionized workplaces it is more difficult to ensure the principles of independence, impartiality and fairness. These are issues that should be carefully considered when developing workplace procedures.
Sexual harassment committees can play an important role in raising awareness of sexual harassment, helping to change workplace culture and promote a more positive working environment. They can have a role in suggesting solutions to factory-wide problems and give workers and employers an opportunity to see the benefits of constructive social dialogue at local level.
However, there are many challenges to be overcome in setting up and making committees visible and effective. Multi-stakeholder initiatives such as FWF, ETP and ETI have found that most suppliers do not have internal complaints committees that deal with sexual harassment, and where they do exist workers are often not aware of them. High turnover of workers presents challenges to training committee members. A further problem is that some factories and farms employ workers through sub-contractors, particularly when there is a peak in orders. These workers often do not have contracts of employment and are not covered by internal complaints procedures.
Workplace Internal Complaints Committees (ICC) on sexual harassment are required in India by the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013 and a Bangladeshi High Court ruling recommends factories establish Anti-Harassment Committees (AHC). In India, the legislation requires that ICCs include a senior woman manager and a member from an NGO or association “committed to the cause of women or a person familiar with the issues relating to sexual harassment.” At least half the members have to be female.
In some workplaces, ICCs have begun to play an important role in enabling new groups of workers to be trained and know their rights, and for managers to see that preventing violence and sexual harassment can bring benefits to the factory. The establishment of a committee can also be a first step for trade unions to play a role in the workplace and an important early step towards giving workers some voice and suggesting solutions to organizational issues. However, it is important that the committees are open to scrutiny if they are to function effectively and not lead to further problems for complainants.
There is some evidence that internal committees can have a positive impact in reducing sexual harassment and in changing the way that women are perceived in factories. FWF training under the programme resulted in more harassment cases reported to the anti-harassment committees and via the FWF telephone helpline. The project piloted new workplace procedures in Indian and Bangladeshi factories where there were no unions, as a first step towards social dialogue. In an environment where few workers are aware of their rights, FWF worker training provided a first exposure to labour rights, such as reasonable working hours, a safe and healthy working environment, and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Practical strategies to implement sexual harassment legislation included the establishment of worker-elected anti-harassment committees and formal policies and grievance procedures, in more than 50 garment factories. Thirty four anti-harassment committees, composed of workers’ representatives, factory management and representatives of non-governmental organizations, were operational in Bangladesh and India in 2014. Since taking on the additional responsibility of participating in anti-harassment committees, some women have become a more vocal presence on the factory floor and an increasing number of women have been promoted to supervisory roles since the start of the project.
However, it is important to be aware of the challenges in setting up and running sexual harassment committees. A survey carried out by the business organization ELEVATE in Indian garment factories found a number of challenges in implementing legislation on sexual harassment in the workplace. Female workers said it was the management’s responsibility to ensure a harassment- free workplace, but they had less confidence in managers’ capacities to handle sexual harassment incidents than male workers. Most workers reported that there was a general Internal Complaints Committee in their factory but only a small number had heard of the local complaints committee for sexual harassment. The survey found limited evidence of training and contract workers and workers with lower levels of education were most vulnerable.
Source: Webinar sexual harassment in Indian workplace:
Tool 4: Tips on setting up and running sexual harassment committees
Consultations and expert advice
- Consult with workers, trade unions and local women’s organizations prior to setting up the committee.
- Draw on expert advice about how to deal with the sensitive issues of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace – this may be available from a local organization, business association or trade union. The ITUC and several global trade unions have practical resources.
- The membership of the committee should be in accordance with any national law (for example, as exists in India, Bangladesh or Pakistan). Where there are no national guidelines it is suggested that the membership of committees is predominantly – at least a majority – female. The committee should include both (senior female) managers and workers and the trade union representative, if there is one.
- If no trade union is recognized it is recommended that a local trade union or women’s organization is invited to join the committee membership to provide expertise.
- Ensure that all members of the committee have received specialist and informed training in sexual harassment and procedures for dealing with complaints.
- Regular training from an external expert for all committee members is likely to be necessary.
- Those designated to investigate and hear complaints should receive specialist training.
Responsibilities, procedures and remedies
- Designate a responsible senior manager and at least two workers to investigate and resolve complaints. Ensure that there are at least two women and one man on a panel and that they receive training in how to conduct confidential and impartial investigations.
- Ensure there are clear procedures in place to file complaints on behalf of harassed workers and to work with managers to resolve complaints.
- Include the right for workers to be represented by a union representative at all stages of the grievance complaint handling process, or someone else if there is no union.
- Provide effective remedies for victims of sexual harassment and violence (e.g. public apology, counselling and/or financial compensation).
- Sexual harassment should be treated as a misconduct, with appropriate disciplinary procedures in place for dealing with this (e.g. a warning, suspension or termination of employment).
- Have an agreed confidential process for documenting complaints of sexual harassment.
- Have interim measures in place to deal with complaints if a worker requests this. For example, temporarily moving a respondent or an aggrieved worker from their current work location. Lasting solutions should not involve the complainant having to move but rather the perpetrator.
- Put in place preventive measures, including training for managers, supervisors and workers and promote a culture of a safe working environment.
- The sexual harassment committee might map the ‘hotspots’ where there is frequent harassment in particular areas in the workplace and suggest remedial action.
- Be prepared to deal with and give assistance to workers affected by sexual harassment outside of the workplace, for example, on public transport or name calling at the factory gates.
- Enable trade unions and women’s organizations with a knowledge of gender-based violence to play a role in monitoring the process and to ensure that cases are handled effectively.
- Provide confidential minutes of all meetings.
Information about the committee and its role
- Information about the role of the committee and how to make confidential complaints should be displayed in a prominent place so that employees are aware of their rights. Include names and contact numbers of members of the committee.
- Ensure that information is accessible to young workers and workers with low literacy levels. Consider writing a small information booklet for workers using pictures and simple illustrations.