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.

The next time your customer service call is picked up by a female voice in India consider this: Is she safe?

We know about the desperate situations experienced by India’s poorest living in remote villages, lacking education and food to thrive. But what about the women who write software, answer calls, and process transactions inside the billion-dollar outsourcing industry inside India?

According to The Hackett Group, the United States and the European Union lost 1.1 million jobs over the last two years. While some jobs disappeared entirely because of poor economics or innovation, most were outsourced. Hackett expects 1.3 million additional jobs to disappear by 2014. Moving these jobs to lower wage markets looks great on balance sheets, but it’s time to ask: Have we also outsourced sexual harassment?

88 percent suffer harassment

In November 2010, the New Delhi-based Centre for Transforming India reported that 88 percent of women inside India’s outsourcing community experienced sexual harassment on the job. Most, 83 percent, never reported it.

Sexual harassment in India is not a new problem inside India’s information technology community, which is largely composed of Indian outsourcers and a few Western firms. In 2008, outrage broke out when MJ Sonia committed suicide and left a note behind implicating two of her superiors for repeated sexual harassment that had become so untenable, she took her own life.

RELATED: Why Indian IT companies are outsourcing – to US

Nokia Siemens, a European firm, was her employer.

Nokia Siemens’ communication head in India, Poonam Kaul, was quoted by Daily News Analysis as saying “It was not a sexual harassment case. Nokia have an operational grievances committee and a Site Development Council at Chennai and Bangalore centres.”

Hard to complain about your boss

As told by Kaul, Nokia made the assumption that because it established the structure for reporting, MJ Sonia would have reported the problem. What Nokia Siemens failed to say, which is well known in India, is that it is socially unacceptable to complain about your superior. According to statistics compiled by the Centre, more than 91 percent of women who experience sexual harassment do not report because they fear victimization. When they contemplate reporting the boss, who is the perpetuator of sexual harassment 72 percent of the time, women again and again choose not to.

Nokia Siemens did what most firms do when entering India; they brought their homegrown human resource practices with them, setting up a structure that failed because of cultural inhibitors. These structures are modeled around the principal that women will report. Women fear reporting the problem and organizations, however accidentally, continue to make it hard to overcome this obstacle.

Firms like Nokia Siemens, if they are looking, will find it challenging to understand best practices that work inside India. Infosys, one of India’s largest outsourcers, established an Anti-Sexual Harassment Initiative (ASHI) around the same time this suicide occurred, offering a reporting mechanism for employees. Infosys well understands the costs of sexual harassment: In 2003, it paid out $3 million to an assistant of Phaneesh Murthy, an Infosys board member at the time, after she sued Murthy in the state of California for sexual harassment.

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.

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.”

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