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The year of trans-friendly workplaces

The Supreme Court judgement striking down Section 377 on one hand and the controversial Transgender Persons Bill passed by the Lok Sabha on the other, it's been an eventful year for LGBTQ+ rights

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images

If your company is not inclusive, it will wither away and die," declares Parmesh Shahani, head of Godrej India Culture Lab, to a gathering of 150 people at Godrej’s Mumbai headquarters in Vikhroli on 13 December. The occasion is the launch of A Manifesto For Trans Inclusion In The Indian Workplace. Written over six months, the white paper makes a strong case for trans-inclusion and aims to be a practical guide to help companies navigate the challenges involved. It’s also the latest in a string of high profile initiatives by Indian corporates aimed at empowering the trans community, especially in the past year.

In February, the VLCC Institute announced a free “Assistant Beauty Therapist" training course for transgender individuals at its Hyderabad branch. Over two dozen people have already completed the course. In July, Uber Eats—the global ride-sharing behemoth’s online food delivery subsidiary—hired India’s first transgender delivery agent in Chennai. In Kolkata, the Medica Superspecialty Hospital (part of the largest chain of hospitals in eastern India) hired two transgender operating theatre technicians on a six month internship. With big names such as Godrej, Tata Steel, Infosys and the Lalit Suri Hospitality Group—all of which have implemented trans-inclusive policies in recent years—leading the charge, it looks like India Inc is finally waking up to the benefits of diversity and trans-inclusion.

“Three years ago, when we held a consultation meeting for the UN Global LGBTI Standards of Conduct for Business at the Godrej headquarters, we called so many companies and only 15 showed up," says Shahani. “And they asked us not to tell anyone that they had attended. But for this event, we’ve got people flying in from Delhi and Bangalore, and they’re all saying please tell the press we’re here."

Visibly invisible

Transgender people—individuals socially, legally and medically categorized as being either male or female, but who assert that this is not their self-identity and/or expression—are the most visible members of India’s LGBTQ+ community, and also its most marginalized. The 4.9 lakh strong community faces immense social stigma, banishment from family and traditional social structures as well as extreme levels of physical and sexual violence.

This marginalization also extends to economic activity, with an estimated 92% of Indian trans people excluded from the mainstream economy. Yet, until recently, their problems and needs were largely ignored. That changed in 2014 when, in the landmark NALSA (National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India) case, the Supreme Court granted legal identity to the “third gender", granting them all the fundamental rights guaranteed to a citizen of India, and directed state and central governments to implement initiatives for their betterment. This marked a small but significant change in how India perceives its transgender citizens, a shift evident in the community’s portrayal in pop culture. In the last couple of years, trans people have been positively portrayed in ads (such as the 2017 Vicks ad about trans motherhood), television (the Kukoo character in Sacred Games) and film (Vijay Sethupathi’s trans-woman lead character in the upcoming Tamil film Super Deluxe).

Corporate India has been slower on the uptake. But activists and corporate insiders working to push for trans inclusion received a shot in the arm earlier this year, when the broader LGBTQ+ community scored a historical legal victory. In September, the Supreme Court struck down the colonial-era Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalized sex between consenting adults of the same gender. Even though the penal provision wasn’t a legal barrier to hiring trans people—it did not criminalize gender identity, only sexual behaviour—it gave most corporates an excuse to stay away from conversations about LGBTQ+ rights. With the judgement, those conversations have now become mainstream, with even conservative industry bodies FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) and CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) now hosting panels on LGBTQ+ diversity at their annual conclaves. “The judgement removed the fig leaf from the companies that were citing 377 as a reason not to be trans-inclusive," says Shahani. “ Now they can be seen for who they are—scared, homophobic or uninterested. That means a lot of other companies have rekindled their efforts. And people within companies who want change to happen have used it as a springboard to push for it."

If you have team members that are not able to be fully themselves, then they will not integrate with the company. But if you accept people for who they are, they’ll give you a 100%.- Keshav Suri

The trailblazers

Much credit for the growing interest in LGBTQ+ inclusion—trans inclusion specifically—goes to a small group of companies, some of which led the way even before the NALSA judgement. Both Infosys and IBM India, for example, implemented non-discriminatory policies and started employee resource groups for LGBTQ+ employees in 2011. Godrej and Royal Bank of Scotland have policies that extend medical benefits to same sex partners, with the former now also having gender neutral bathrooms and offering insurance cover for sexual reassignment surgery (SRS) for trans employees. These companies aren’t just implementing these policies because it’s the right thing to do—though it is—but also because it’s good for their bottom line. The Godrej paper estimates that India’s LGBTQ+ community has a combined spending power of $200 billion ( 14 lakh crore), while a 2016 World Bank report says that India is losing up to $32 billion annually due to homophobia and transphobia. That’s money no company can leave on the table. Other benefits include a diverse talent pool and being more attractive to millennial candidates. “Inclusion is a way to make more money, ensure innovation and also create a favourable reputation for a company in the digital age," says Shahani.

Keshav Suri, executive director of The Lalit Suri Hospitality Group, agrees. Suri has championed a number of LGBTQ+ initiatives in his organization, including LGBTQ+ nights and drag shows at the Kitty Su clubs, an equality and diversity HR policy and mediclaim cover for SRS and same-sex couples.

“At the end of the day, to have a discrimination free company only makes good business sense," says Suri, who has also launched the Keshav Suri Foundation to work on gender sensitization in corporates and skill development for trans people. “If you have team members that are not able to be fully themselves, then they will not integrate with the company. But if you accept people for who they are, they’ll give you a 100%."

Anubhuti Banerjee always knew she was a trans-woman, but she didn’t feel ready to transition until she was working with Tata Steel. At the time, the company had been making concrete efforts to become more diverse and inclusive. So when Banerjee told the company’s chief diversity officer that she wanted to transition, she was immediately offered full backing and support, despite the lack of a policy to handle potential issues faced by trans employees.

“The top management were also extremely supportive," says Banerjee, who now leads the company’s employee resource group for LGBTQ+ employees. “I got the opportunity to make changes to the current policy so that they are more inclusive to people on the LGBTQ spectrum. That was a kind of empowerment that I never expected."

Banerjee had to face insensitive questions and unsavoury comments from colleagues in the beginning but after an ongoing series of sensitization workshops, she says that things have gotten a lot better. Today, the company not only covers SRS under its medical insurance and has gender neutral bathrooms, it is also doing community outreach on gender sensitization at Jamshedpur and Kalinganagar, where Tata Steel has a sizable number of employees.

“Recently, someone who joined us from campus got in touch with me and asked if there was an employee resource group and affirmative policies for trans people," says Banerjee, who says Tata Steel’s support played a big role in her family and friends’ acceptance of her transition. “That was one of the major factors in them joining the company. This gives us the strength to go on because it showed that people are paying attention at what you’re doing, and it is going to have an impact."

Less talk, more action

For trans individuals, a corporate job is about much more than a steady salary. It’s about being afforded a life of basic dignity, and often a potential way back into their families and mainstream society. So it is unfortunate that the number of trans people in corporate workplaces remains so low, with trans activist and UNDP consultant Zainab Patel putting it at less than 300. Companies remain unsure of how to go about hiring trans employees and of what policies and infrastructure are necessary to make them feel welcome. This often goes beyond the workplace, as potential trans employees may need support to overcome challenges like finding housing and adjusting to mainstream work norms.

“For trans women especially, who are not within society and within a traditional family structure, adapting to the workplace is difficult," says trans-rights activist Olga Aaron, founder of the Bringing Adequate Values of Humanity (BRAVOH) movement. “They’re not used to fixed work hours, accountability, working under a boss. That’s one of the main reasons they cannot cope."

“The other thing is remuneration," adds Patel. “If trans people have to give up any of their traditional income generation practices—whether it be sex work, begging or dancing—the job has to compensate for the economic loss they might face."

Another major challenge is that due to lack of access to higher education, the pool of skilled candidates is quite small, despite skilling initiatives by a number of NGOs. If we are to make significant progress quickly, it’s imperative that the government get involved. Of the 249 skill development campaigns run by the government, only one covers trans people. The trans community represents a missed opportunity for the Skill India campaign.

The biggest problem though, is that many companies are still unwilling to go the extra mile. “They’d rather hold a panel discussion, or talk about changing their policies, but that’s not how social change happens," says social inclusion start-up Periferry founder Neelam Jain. The Chennai-based organization has placed over 65 trans individuals in private sector jobs since its inception in May 2017, but Jain is sceptical of India Inc’s commitment to trans-inclusion. “We’ve done enough of guiding corporates on why they should do this. But they really want to play it safe. It’s bizarre that they don’t realise they could be part of a revolution, of making history."

Despite the slow pace of change, 2018 has been a year of notable gains for the trans community. Or at least it had been before 17 December, when the Lok Sabha passed the controversial Transgender Persons (Rights and Protections) bill. Called regressive and discriminatory by many trans activists, the bill requires certification from a medical establishment just to say you’re trans, criminalizes begging, makes no mention of reservations and has much more lenient penalties for sexual and physical assault on trans people than for similar offences against cisgender women. “This is actually the anti-thesis of the rights demanded by the community" says Patel. “We’ve gone a generation back with this bill."

Once again, the Centre has dropped the ball when it comes to trans rights. But India’s powerful private sector has the potential to do better, and bring about real change and empowerment for the community. To do that though, the rest of India Inc must go beyond platitudes and panel discussions, and puts its money where its mouth is. As Jain pointedly told the crowd at the Godrej India Culture Lab event, with the removal of Section 377, and the clear benefits of having a more diverse and inclusive workplace, corporate India is out of excuses. “It’s not rocket science," she said.

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