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The objectives of this study were to investigate the manifestations and prevalence of violence and harassment in the workplace within the South Asian region, in both a pre- and post-COVID-19 reality, by conducting literature reviews of available secondary data in 05 countries – i.e. Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka; based on the same, to assess the prevalence of necessary safeguards for victims and those vulnerable, in the form of effective legislation in keeping with the parameters of C190; to accordingly conduct a qualitative field research study to both verify and address the lacunae revealed from the secondary data; and finally, based on the findings and recommendations proposed by each country, to make overall recommendations and proposals for the regional discourse vis a vis the implementation of C190.
Whilst the researchers did encounter numerous challenges throughout the entire process of this study due to the global pandemic, particularly with restrictions in travel and limitations in accessing key personnel in the tripartite sectors to conduct their field research, they were nonetheless able to submit very comprehensive and credible country reports.
It is also pertinent to note, that the findings and recommendations from the country reports, are largely representative of and reflects the perspective of the employee, with limited perspectives from the employer and state. This is attributed to the non-committal and politically correct nature of responses received when researchers were able to conduct interviews with these parties at all, and also due to the difficulties and inabilities in accessing these stakeholders for interviews.
Considering the above, the findings that were common to the region, primarily emphasized the increase in violence and harassment in the ‘online cyber workplace’ during the Coronavirus pandemic, while focusing on its disproportionate impact on women; there was also much discussion on harassment and discrimination faced by those of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity and expression (SOGIESC), sex workers and other informal sector workers who are largely left out of conversations on workplace safety; it was also highlighted that the lack of proper and effective legislation and reporting mechanisms, specifically focusing on the dearth of proper means of complaint reporting, makes it a very stressful and essentially ineffective process for victims.
Accordingly, the recommendations common to the region, focused on the need for more awareness on labor laws, workplace policies and remedies for basic human rights violations in the workplace; the need for more female leadership was also emphasized, as was the need for better rights and representation for diverse SOGIESC workers and employees from the informal sector. Most importantly, there was a call for more accountability and transparency – both from the employer and the state - to ensure efficient implementation and enforcement of existing laws, whilst also calling for amendment of existing labor laws and enactment of new laws, where needed, to encapsulate the scope of C190. In this respect, researchers agreed that definitions of violence and harassment should be more exhaustive in their respective country legislation, and should include manifestations of verbal and psychological harassment, lack of sanitation, violence during commute to work, domestic violence, harassment at employer provided accommodation etc, which are currently excluded in country laws and corporate policy.
In light of all the above, the overall recommendations for the regional dialogue were focused and specifically aimed at: a) the state – i.e. Executives, ministries of justice, ministries of labour, law and policy makers, law enforcement agencies; b) the employer – i.e. private corporate sector entities and employer representative bodies; c) the employee – i.e. employee representative bodies and trade unions; and lastly, d) a multi-stakeholder engagement – i.e. the state, employer, employee to jointly take positive action to move this process forward.
For the state – it is recommended that definitive steps be taken to implement, enforce and monitor existing laws and policies in a streamlined manner. To achieve this, the state needs to empower the relevant line ministries and other law enforcement agencies with adequate information and tools to carry out their duties effectively; provide assurances of non-interference or reprisal, politically or otherwise, for performance of work; provide rewards for good performance and stringent action against those abusing the system; provide sufficient funding to ministries and enforcers to ensure long term sustenance of this process; to ensure that these measures are included to state policy. It is also recommended to take steps to amend existing laws or to implement new laws to address instances of violence and harassment that are not even contemplated under C190 – i.e. online abuse, cyber violence and harassment due to indefinite work-from-home realities. Since these realities are going to continue for the foreseeable future, laws need to be amended or new ones enacted to address these very real threats to safe and secure work spaces.
For the employer – it is recommended that employers enforce existing company policies or enact new policies to comprehensively address all forms of violence and harassment in the work place and to ensure a conducive work environment at all times for all parties. To do this, the appointed ombudsman should be non-partisan and independent, the anonymity of the whistle blower should be safeguarded and stringent measures taken against perpetrators and malicious persons abusing the system. Additionally, to show their bona fides and commitment to this cause, a very meaningful and impactful gesture that the employer and employer representative bodies could take, is to collectively stand for good governance by championing a cause, such as the implementation of a global Convention like C190.
For the employee – it is recommended that trade unions and other employee representative bodies in the various sectors and types of organisations, take steps to educate workers on available laws, policies and redressal mechanisms; employees should be encouraged to call out perpetrators with assurances that they will be safeguarded from retaliatory action, whilst also emphasizing the importance of reporting with a non-malicious, genuine intent.
For the multi-stakeholder engagement - it is recommended to specifically focus on the implementation of awareness programmes amongst the different sectors, industries and stakeholders, both to educate and to change archaic patriarchal attitudes and perceptions. To achieve this end, it is necessary to first assess the need to ratify and adopt C190 in its entirety in the first instance, given the status quo in each country, and thereafter to take steps to educate and create awareness amongst the state officials, enforcers, employers and employees alike, through the respective line ministries, human resource personnel and employer and employee representative bodies and trade unions.
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