Informal Female Workers Face Harassment and Abuse in India, Report Finds

A newly released study showing poor women in India are regularly subjected to sexual harassment and abuse at work underscores the risks people working in the informal jobs sector face, a vulnerability exacerbated by the global coronavirus pandemic.

The study, released on Tuesday by Human Rights Watch, notes the abuse is taking place because federal and local governments are not sufficiently enforcing the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act. The law was passed in 2013 after the gang-rape of a woman in New Delhi triggered protests across the country. The law requires employers across India with 10 or more workers follow the law’s procedures to prevent harassment.

Compliance with the law has been problematic since its inception. A 2015 report from a nongovernmental organization that advocates for India’s business communities found that 36% of Indian businesses and 25% of multinational corporations in the country were not complying with the law.

[MORE: #MeToo Reshapes Attitudes in India About Sexual Harassment at Work]

Worldwide, more than 61% of employed people — 2 billion people — work in the informal economy, according to the International Labor Organization. The heaviest proportions of informal work as part of the overall economy are in emerging and developing countries across Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East. Globally, the informal sectors are a greater source of employment for men than women.

The abuse of workers in the informal sector, jobs that include home-based work, street vendors, domestic workers, waste collection and manual workers in the construction and agriculture industries, has been a global problem for decades. But in India the issue cleaves strongly along gender lines; 95% of the country’s female workers — 195 million people — are employed in informal jobs, according to a report produced by Deloitte and the Global Compact Network India, which cites World Bank data. And women working in the informal sectors don’t carry as loud a voice as people in India’s entertainment industries, who joined the global #MeToo movement.

Violence that informal workers potentially face can be tied to scarce resources, such as useful urban space or valuable recyclable materials, according to Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing, a U.K.-based research policy network. Additionally, workspaces such as private homes can leave female informal workers isolated and vulnerable to abuse and attacks.

Foreign employees around the world working in the informal economy face other challenges. Many may face lacking basic guarantees, such as residency status that would provide access to benefits that citizens enjoy, such as public housing and social security. In 2012, for example, Hong Kong’s High Court struck down a lower court ruling that allowed foreign-born domestic workers a pathway to permanent residency. The case was seen as a potential landmark across the Asia-Pacific for domestic workers’ rights. Many countries across the region, as well as in the Middle East, employ women primarily from Asia as domestic workers.

The global coronavirus pandemic has heightened the vulnerability of informal economy workers, according to the Consultative Group to Assist the Poor, a Washington-based think tank. In turn, countries such as Egypt that have a sizable informal sector face serious threats to their economies.

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