Have we outsourced sexual harassment?
As Western companies increasingly turn to Indian labor, they must be willing to acknowledge and confront widespread sexual harassment of female employees in India.
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While Infosys may understand the problem, its results are dismal. According to Infosys’s Sustainability Report 2009-2010, 7 "significant" cases of sexual harassment were heard and resolved by ASHI. It is difficult to imagine that in a population, by my estimates, of at least 30,000 women working for Infosys in India, there were only 7 instances of sexual harassment. Using the Centre’s numbers as a guide, 22,500 of Infosys’ women (88 percent) are likely to have experienced sexual harassment. That's a far cry from 7.Skip to next paragraph
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Nasscom, the consortium in India charged with setting policy for the information technology community, started a sexual harassment education workshop for outsourcers in 2009. “We want to increase the number of women employed in [our] sector,” Som Mittal, Nasscom’s president was quoted as saying. Nasscom has a long way to go with this initiative; only 64 industry representatives have attended the two workshops it hosted over the past two years. This disappointing attendance, however, appears to be enough for Mittal who was quoted in December, 2010 in the Times of India saying; “India’s new millennium workplace has moved beyond issues like sexual harassment, especially in the sunrise sectors.”
Mittal’s sentiment is not shared by the Indian government. It is trying to help by pushing through legislation called Protection of Women Against Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill. The Vishakha Guidelines, the Indian Supreme Court directive compelling organizations to have a viable system in place to report sexual harassment was put forward in 1997. The next step was supposed to be a law. It has taken more than a decade to get a sexual harassment bill this far through India’s legislative process.
Unfortunately, Indian politicians are debating the addition of domestic workers to the bill, causing delays. This is a mistake: the challenges of domestic workers are also serious, but fundamentally different. Keeping these two problems distinct is the only way organizations in India will get a clear message on how to protect the women inside formal organizations.
Not just India's problem
Some may argue that this is India’s problem, that Western firms can hire outsourcers but don’t hold the responsibility for how they conduct business. Which makes me wonder: Have we outsourced our responsibility for sexual harassment? In the outsourcing community we talk about outsourcing risk, but this takes this concept to a new level.
The question remains: Are Western firms plugged-in enough to India’s challenges to understand that this issue impacts them? This issue is closer to home than any Western executive wants to imagine. These women are on their payroll, however indirectly, and need to be protected from mistreatment in the workplace.
If American executives rely on US media to cover these topics, its doubtful they have ever considered that their outsourced staff is in danger. The Wall Street Journal took three months to report on the Centre for Transforming India numbers, tucking it away inside the “WSJ India Real Time,” a blogging platform for local journalists.
The US media bombards us with the positive side of the Indian workplace in its attempts to bring an understanding of India to the West. The recent Bloomberg Businessweek article, “Keeping Women on the Job in India” focused on the efforts of the Indian operations of American firms Ernst and Young and Google to keep women in the workplace after having a baby. It didn’t mention any of the real problems women face inside India’s Information Technology community.
This is not a new battle. The US faced the same challenge when women entered the workforce in the 1960s. While the federal government implemented new laws to protect women, it was the business community that made change happen inside office walls for women who also feared reporting problems. Why? They needed the workers.
While it would be easy to say that India needs its women, we in the West do as well. Last year, according to Forrester Research, American firms spent upwards of $40 billion on outsourced services inside India. Without women, outsourcers will be unable to deliver the Indian talent the West has become so accustomed to hiring.
Brandi Moore is an expert on Indian business culture. She is the founder of the consultancy IndiaThink, a columnist at Outsource Magazine, and the author of “The Little BRIC Book: Cracking the code for global management of projects across Brazil, Russia, India, and China.”