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Opinion

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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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.

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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.”

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