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Anti-harassment law needs teeth

Anti-harassment law needs teeth

By: Asma Ghani

Islamabad: The anti-harassment law will do away with the critique of selective protection if the proposed amendments to the act get the parliament’s nod.

A number of proposed amendments, including the power of suo moto and extension of the scope of application of law to the informal economy, would give more powers to the Federal Ombudsman office. Almost five proposed amendments to the Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010 have been proposed by the Federal Ombudsman Secretariat and some parliamentarians including Senator Farhatullah Babar are going through a consultation process.

One of the amendments proposed is to give the Ombudsman suo moto power that would enable the office to help out women and girls of far-off areas who have no awareness about the law, shared Federal Ombudsperson Justice (Retd) Yasmin Abbasi.

The definition of ‘workplace’ has also been proposed to broaden that would include place of studies or vocational training, an institute or a dwelling place or a house where the domestic servant work or home-based workers carry out the work, she said. “The amendment would give legal cover to millions of workers of the informal sector that currently fall beyond the purview of the act, leaving them entirely defenceless,” she added.

Millions of women, girls and boys are engaged in home-based work or work as fulltime housemaids in Pakistan contributing to the informal economy significantly. But they are not recognised as ‘workers’ as per the definition of workers set in the national labour laws whose definition only covers workers in the formal sector, working in factories, shops and formal establishments. The amendment would also clarify the confusion that the act does not apply to universities, though it does, the federal ombudsperson maintained. In the case of sexual harassment of a student by an instructor at Quaid-i-Azam University (QAU) in 2011, the Ombudsman had unequivocally ruled that the “act equally applies to employers, employees and students.”

The Ombudsperson followed the same reasoning in its decision regarding a high profile harassment case at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) in November 2014 directing the university to fire the lecturer. The ministry of law, justice and human rights, however, ascribes to a different opinion that the 2010 Act only regulates employer-employee relationships and is inapplicable to students. On the basis of such restrictive construction, the then President Asif Ali Zardari had set aside the order of the Ombudsman and thereby the termination of the accused instructor from QAU. The LUMS case also landed in the Presidency as the lecturer, who hails from a strong political background, has appealed against the Ombudsperson’s decision. And, following the same reasoning and a set precedence President Mamnoon Hussain might also set aside the ombudsman’s decision and give ruling to reinstate the professor.

Regarding the criticism on the judgement of LUMS case from a group of faculty members, she remarked that those who criticised the ruling had limited knowledge of the issue or knew one-sided story. “That’s the difference between a layman and a court that decides after cross-questioning and examination,” she opined saying, “If a person asks you to stop and deliberately unzip your shirt, what would you call it if it’s not harassment?” Any objectionable act, comment or display that demeans, belittles or causes personal humiliation and interference with work performance or in pursuit of studies falls under the ambit of harassment, she explained. “And it’s not related to only sexual harassment. Many cases the office heard were not of sexual harassment but of hostile or offensive work environment.” Another amendment she informed about is the change of the definition of ‘employee’ and the title `women’ so that it can be more effective for all.

And with this amendment to the act, it will be applicable to a person of any sexuality. “Harassment can be of any kind between man to man, woman to woman, man to woman or woman to man and transgender community is the most vulnerable group to sexual harassment at a place of employment so there is a need to expand its definition,” Justice Abbasi said.

So far the Federal Ombudsman Office has registered about 240 cases coming from all provinces and territories, and of them 15 are being heard while the rest have been disposed of. The complainant can contact the main office or provincial offices as Punjab and Sindh have established provincial ombudsman offices. But Khyber Pakhtunkhawa and Balochistan have yet to establish it, she added.

“Since establishment of this office the women now feel safe at a place of work. They know that the allegations of inappropriate behaviour will be treated with seriousness and the offenders will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice,” Justice Abbasi believes. The office believes in quick disposal of complaints unlike the pendency of cases in other courts, she claimed. The act also binds the office to dispose of the cases within a period of 60 days after the registration of a complaint. The implementation rate of decisions is also 100 percent, she said. “But due to the shortage of staff and infrastructure, the office is lacking a monitoring mechanism to check whether or not the law is being implemented that requires all public and private organisations to adopt an internal code of conduct and a complaint and appeals mechanism aimed at establishing a safe working environment for working women.”

DAWN

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