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West Bengal: Women Activists Meet Labour Minister

28 May 2015
A TEAM of activists from the West Bengal chapter of 'Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression' (WSS) – a non-funded grassroots platform of which AIRWO is a part – comprising Anuradha Talwar, Bela, Rama Debnath, Nisha Biswas and Sharmistha Choudhury, met the labour minister of the state on April 29 over the issue of sexual harassment faced by women workers in the unorganized sector.

The WSS team pointed out to the minister in charge for labour, Mr Malay Ghatak, that MGNREGA women workers, though employed by the government, regularly face the use of abusive language, sexist remarks and even physical violence from Panchayat officials and supervisors responsible for giving them work and wages under MGNREGA, that sexual favours are demanded of women construction workers almost as a regular part of their work by contractors, masons and employers, and that brick field workers are forced to live in precarious and unsafe housing without doors and protection within the brick field and are often open to sexual assault by superiors in the brick field – to name a few instances. However, women workers in the unorganized sector, numbering in lakhs, lack any redressal mechanism in cases of sexual assault/harassment. Although under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013there ought to be Internal Complaints Committees in all enterprises employing more than 10 workers and a Local Complaint Committee in every district to take up complaints of workers employed in enterprises having less than 10 workers, the reality is that such committees are non-existent.

When this was pointed out by the WSS delegates, the minister – in what was obviously a burst of innovation – declared that the concerned labour commissioner's office was mandated to take up all complaints of sexual harassment in any enterprise operating under its jurisdiction. He added that the concerned labour commissioner would then act upon and/or forward the complaint to a special cell/committee under the labour ministry constituted for the purpose. He also remarked that complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace were really rare!

The WSS has decided to act upon the labour minister's assertion by asking its member organisations to immediately accost labour commissioners with all complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace that so frequently come up, especially in the unorganized sector. Such a step will prove the true worth of the minister's claims and also give a direction to the struggle for asserting working women's legal right against sexual harassment in the workplace.

The WSS team also reminded the minister that asper the MGNREGA 2005, any worksite that has 5 or more women with children aged 6 years or less must have a crèche for the children. In addition, as per the recently passed National Food Security Act 2013, facilities to enable breast feeding have become mandatory. The minister, in response, urged the WSS delegates to get social organisations and NGOs to operate crèches in workplaces and added that the government would provide full support to such venture. The WSS activists have asked for a formal government circular to such effect – but despite the minister's promises, such a circular is not likely to be forthcoming.

The delegates also sought the labour minister's intervention in the matter of ensuring toilets everywhere for women, which is a very basic necessity for working women.

Although it is hardly likely that the West Bengal government will respond to the demands with any alacrity, the WSS team's meeting with the minister has served to bring real problems confronting working women, problems which have so far remained quite neglected, on the agenda.
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