Embracing Transgender Inclusion in the Workplace: A Call for Action and Acceptance

5 December 2023
ABOUT THIS Perspective

The article highlights challenges transgender individuals encounter in workplaces and society. It emphasises holistic recognition by linking food, shelter, and employment for inclusive efforts in their livelihoods.

In 2017, the state of Kerala took a significant step towards gender inclusion. Kochi Metro became India’s first government-owned company to formally appoint transgender persons. They were employed in various departments including housekeeping and ticketing, and they were provided on-the-job training. It was the first time the third gender enjoyed sanctioned and explicit visibility in a public utility.

But with time, it became evident that this apparent progress towards modernity was merely symbolic. Transgender people’s everyday realities remained coloured by subjugation and discrimination. Pictures of transgender employees were published by various newspapers without their consent, exposing those who’d kept their identity secret. Employees reported differential treatment and harassment on the job. They received a lower salary compared to non-trans employees and felt excluded by the lack of gender-neutral washrooms at work. Challenges persisted outside of the workplace too – employees were refused housing by landlords, and commuting became costlier as they were compelled to depend on private auto or taxis to avoid harassment on public transport. Within a week of the Metro’s launch, eight recruits had already quit. As per reports, in 2022, a mere nine employees remained.

The transgender community has long been a victim of Indian society’s hypocritical attitudes. While enthusiastically called upon to offer blessings on auspicious occasions like weddings and at births, they are ignored, discriminated against, and even ostracised by society in most other realms of life. This in turn has a direct impact on their participation in economic activities and other forms of employment. In a country where many people have no economic resources other than their own labour, such societal biases keep trans people from securing meaningful employment and bettering their circumstances.

The Indian legal system has taken some steps towards recognising and mainstreaming trans people: in a landmark judgement, NALSA vs Union of India (2014), the Supreme Court of India acknowledged transgender persons as outside binary categorisation, and declared them the  “third gender”, promising them the right to self-identification. It also directed the government to proactively work towards integrating them into the broader fabric of society. In 2019, the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Act was sanctioned to provide legal protection to transgender persons. According to the Act, transgender persons now had the right to study in mainstream schools, get college degrees, engage in conventional employment, and reside wherever they wanted without fear.

While the push by the court and the resultant law did foster growing employment opportunities for transgender persons, challenges persist. In order to invoke the rights as guaranteed under the Act, such as rights of residence and non-discrimination in employment, the transgender person must be issued a Certificate of Identity by a District Magistrate. Procuring this certificate has proven to be riddled with obstacles. As of July 9, 2023, according to the National Portal for Transgender Persons, 16,196 applications were received of which 13,019 certificates and 13,005 IDs were issued. Going by Census 2011 figures, this accounts for a mere six percent of the total transgender population of just under 500,000. Transgender people have reported red tape, digital access issues, insensitivity among the administrative staff, and unwarranted verification processes to be significant impediments in filing the application. Further still, the rules are yet to be notified in certain states, which poses an implementation challenge. This prevents transgender people from availing various opportunities and welfare programs.

Access to employment is further constrained by limited access to formal education. Transgender people report encountering severe bullying and harassment in formal education settings. According to the 2011 census, only 46 percent of people who had chosen the “other gender” option were literate compared to 74 percent overall indicating significant exclusion in educational settings. Low educational levels further disadvantage those seeking employment. Once in the workplace, transgender people face stigma, often leading them to quit in a short period of time. Exclusion from workplaces and the lack of adequate livelihood options result in a significant proportion of the community continuing to resort to begging, sex work, and other kinds of low-paying labour that society traditionally perceives as undignified.

While labour laws have long remained binary in their gender recognition, the new labour codes promise to effect some change. For instance, the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions, 2020 imposes a responsibility on employers to ensure separate washroom facilities, locker rooms and other amenities for transgender employees. Similarly, the Code on Wages, 2019 has moved away from the dual categorisation of men and women towards the need for equal pay for all genders. Nonetheless, gaps remain. The Maternity Benefit Act, 1960, uses the word “woman” and is ambiguous regarding transgender employees’ entitlement to maternity benefits. Similarly, the POSH Act, 2013 only talks of sexual harassment faced by women. This exclusion leaves transgender employees particularly vulnerable to humiliation and exploitation in the workplace.

The government is working to uphold the constitutional mandate of the right to work, but rights at work continue to elude transgender people.  Inclusion efforts are therefore often merely tokenistic.  Some years ago, pioneering trans activist Living Smile Vidya submitted a plea to the government to be euthanised. Fellow activists and she declared that they would rather die a dignified death than live a life in which securing employment and housing was difficult.

The recognition of transgender persons under various labour legislations is still in its early stages. It is crucial that specific provisions be included in the newly enacted codes and supplementary regulations to address the community’s unique needs. Economic empowerment and financial independence are the most powerful drivers of transformation. To afford the community these opportunities, businesses must adopt trans-specific policies and practices with special sensitisation programs and zero tolerance for discrimination and victimisation. An inclusive environment at work will allow transgender people to lead authentic lives and better their working lives.