January 31st, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
Voicepk.net goes through important amendments in the Protection Against Harassment of Women at Workplace (Amendment) Act that would facilitate people including transgender persons to come forward against their alleged harassers.
Definition of complainant widened
The definition of “complainant” under the Act has been expanded from man or woman to “any person” which means that now anyone regardless of gender can seek protection under it, particularly the transgender community.
Parents and guardians will now be able to lodge complaints in cases of harassment faced by minors. The Inquiry Committee is to adopt child-sensitive procedures when a victim is minor, according to a tweet by Nida Usman, founder of the Women in Law Initiative.
Workplace definition expanded
Previously, the definition of the workplace was very restrictive. Consequently, this lacuna in law was highlighted in many high-profile cases which could not be considered under the act. In a judgment in July 2021, the Supreme Court had also highlighted that the workplace harassment law was limited in scope.
“Any space or place where an employee carries it out his/her duties is now considered a workplace,” women’s rights activist Nighat Dad told Voicepk.net. For instance, polio workers are harassed at a house where they went to administered polio drops, would be considered a workplace under the law, she said. Similarly, a place where performers or artistes rehearse would be deemed a workplace while the amendments has recognised courts instead of courtrooms as place of employment to allow employees to report any harassment faced around the premises, she elaborated.
Educational institutes, gigs, concerts, studios, performance facilities, courts, highways, sporting facilities and gymnasiums now would fall under the purview of a workplace, said Nighat Dad in her twitter thread about the amendments in the Act.
Former employees can now lodge complaints
Former employees and workers will now be able to lodge complaints of harassment during their tenure at their workplaces. “Previously, if an employee left their job due to harassment and a hostile work environment, they could not pursue a harassment case under the Act because the definition of the complainant did not include former employees; that has now been rectified,” Nighat Dad said.
Informal workers get cover
Through an amendment in the definition of ‘employee’, workers in the informal sector have been brought under the preview of the anti-harassment law.
The definition of “employee” has been expanded to include regular, contractual, piece-rate, gig, temporary, part-time, freelance employees including students, performers, artists, sportspersons, interns, trainees, domestic workers, home-based workers or apprentices.
“Basically the law recognised students who are not employees as well as domestic workers who have no formal contracts to approach the ombudsperson in relation to complaints of harassment,” Nighat Dad told Voicepk.net.
“This is a huge step, particularly the inclusion of workers in the informal economy, since about 70% of women in the workforce in Pakistan are informal workers who were previously ignored by the law,” Dad explained.
Cases, appeals to be decided within 90 days
The ombudsperson has been bound to decide a case of harassment or an appeal against a decision within 90 days under the amended act. Similarly, a representation to the Governor or President against the decision of the ombudsperson is also to be decided within a period of 90 days.
According to Nighat Dad, the duration is a moderate timeframe for decision on harassment complaints but its implementation will depend on resources provided to the ombudsperson.
The definition of harassment has been widened to include instances of harassment resulting in discriminatory behaviour on basis of gender which may or may not be sexual.
“This is to cover instances where workplace may become hostile or intimidating or otherwise causing interference and hindrance in complainant’s advancement at workplace because of discriminatory attitudes, “ Nida Usman tweeted.
Previously, the courts had interpreted harassment very narrowly and the amendments now have broadened the scope to include gender discrimination, Nighat Dad explained.
Acknowledging the misuse of laws such as defamation to punish survivors who come forward, the law now empowers Inquiry Committees to consider “counterblast suits” for defamation as retaliation, Nighat Dad said in her tweet.
Contrary to the propaganda on social media, Nighat Dad said the law had adequate safeguards against false complaints of harassment.
“Section 5 of the Act already provides that an action can be taken against the complainant for filing a false complaint,” she pointed out.
The same section is often used to threaten complainants for withdrawing complaints, she added.