Sexual harassment at workplace: Strong legislation required
Sexual harassment has unfortunately become a common phenomenon in many workplaces. Such incidents at the workplace create disruptions which weaken the growth and profitability of any business. This can have a highly detrimental impact on the efficiency and productivity of a corporate image.
Statistically from 1996 to 2017, the rate of participating of women at workplaces have been increased from 15.8% to 36.30% as per ActionAid Bangladesh. Another study of ActionAid in December 2019 stated that 85% of Garment workers face verbal abuse, 71% face mental torture, 21% face physical torture and 13% sexual abuse. According to "State of Rights Implementation of Women Ready Made Garment Workers", commanded by KarmojibiNari and Care Bangladesh, 12.7% of workers face sexual harassment at their workplaces. Ensuring a safe-guard and secured workplace for workers, especially for women are the responsibilities of the employers stated by the Labour leader and Executive Director of Awaj Foundation Nazma Akhter. She also emphasized on government's responsibility to take proper steps of enacting laws and ensuring proper implementation in this aspect.
The laws of Bangladesh are also silent to a greater extent to emphasize on this respective topic, as there is no comprehensive legislation, which directly signifies the issue of sexual harassment at the workplaces. However, in 2009, a detailed guideline has been provided by the Hon'ble High Court Division of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh ("HCD") in response to the writ petition no. 5916 filed by Bangladesh National Women Lawyers Association (BNWLA) in 2008. The HCD has issued a set of guidelines defining sexual abuse and harassment of women at workplaces and educational institutions and ways of preventing any kind of physical, mental and sexual harassment of women at their respective workplaces. These guidelines are treated as law until any new law is passed in this regard.
The set of guidelines provided by the HCD requires all workplaces and educational institutions in both public and private sectors, to constitute a Complaint Committee to receive complaints and to conduct an investigation and make recommendations. The Complaint Committee is to consist of five members and the majority of the members shall have to be women. The Head of the Complaint Committee should be a woman (if available). The Complaint Committee should have at least two members from outside the organization concerned, preferably from organizations working on gender issues and sexual abuse. The Complaint Committees will require to submit annual reports to the Government on the compliance of these guidelines. The complaint has to be lodged with the Complaint Committee within 30 working days of the occurrence.
If the complainant wants to withdraw the complaint the reason should be investigated and mentioned in the report. The Complaint Committee will submit the investigation report with a recommendation within 30 (Thirty) working days to the Concerned Authority of the educational institution or workplace. The period of 30 (Thirty) days may be extended up to 60 (Sixty) days where it is found necessary. If it is proved that a false complaint has been filed intentionally then a report shall be submitted to the Concerned Authority recommending appropriate action for the complainants. The Complaint Committee shall take decisions based on the view expressed by the majority of its members.
The Concerned Authority may suspend temporarily the accused person (other than students) and in case of students, may prevent them from attending their classes on the receipt of the recommendation of the Complaint Committee. If the accused is found guilty of sexual harassment, the Concerned Authority shall treat it as misconduct and take proper action according to the disciplinary rules of all workplaces and the educational institutions in both public and private sectors within 30 (Thirty) days and/or shall refer the matter to the appropriate Court or tribunal if the act complained of constitutes an offence under any penal law.
As per survey completed in May 2018, 87% of university students and 64.5% of professionals were not familiar with the said guidelines as has not been effectively implemented in most of the workplaces.
The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 also deals with the sexual harassment unsatisfactorily at the workplaces. This law states about unruly behaviours which should be discouraged and a penalty for not obeying or complying with the terms of the law but not more than that.
Penal Code 1860, Section 10 of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 and Section 70 of the Bangladesh Telecommunication Act 2001 state the terms of sexual harassment and its punishment but it does not cover any specific laws regarding sexual harassment in workplaces.
The applicability of the laws aforementioned is very insufficient. Though some guidelines and laws have been developed enforcement of such laws or the guidelines are hardly found. Such occurrence should not be accepted or excused, be it at workplaces or in our personal life. Proper actions should be taken along with the enforcement of the guidelines at the workplaces. Parliament shall strongly consider making legislation to combat sexual and other forms of harassment at workplaces.
Barrister Nuzhath Islam is Associate, Legal Counsel
Law Column is authored by the associates of Legal Counsel which is one of the leading full-service corporate law chambers of Bangladesh having core expertise in corporate and commercial law, employment and labour law, family law, property law, corporate taxation and so forth. (www.legalcounselbd.com or email at [email protected])