MUMBAI, June 20 — During a training session for its first set of transgender recruits, officials from the new metro rail company in the southern Indian city of Kochi asked them if they had any concerns. They had just one: bathroom access.
"The project construction was complete by then and the stations were ready," said Reshmi Chandrathil Ravi, a spokeswoman for Kochi Metro Rail, a new network in the port city launched at the weekend by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
"So we are now turning the big bathrooms for the differently-abled into all-gender bathrooms to be shared with the disabled," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The washroom signs have now been removed and sent for a fresh "inclusive design". And the company has allowed its transgender recruits to choose a male or female uniform.
Kochi Metro Rail is the first government-owned company to recruit staff from the transgender community as part of Kerala state's initiative to give the marginalised group better access to job opportunities.
Since India's Supreme Court gave transgender people "third gender" recognition in 2014, a growing number of Indian companies have actively hired transgender people and drafted policies to ensure they are not discriminated against in the workplace.
India's 2011 census recorded half a million transgender people but campaigners estimate the number at about 2 million. Less than half are literate and even fewer have jobs, according to the census. Traditionally, transgender people in India have been confined to the margins of society.
Male-to-female "hijras", the most visible group in the transgender community, feature in Hindu mythology and are seen as auspicious oddities whose blessings are sought at weddings and births.
This popular perception of transgender people has meant they have struggled to find regular jobs, campaigners said.
But attitudes are slowly starting to change.
"At least 12 to 13 of our member companies already have all-gender bathrooms. This started happening since last year," said Rashmi Vikram, senior manager with Community Business, a charity that supports firms seeking to be more socially inclusive.
"Some companies have turned the disability restroom to all gender, all-abilities restroom, promoting it in a way that there is no stigma attached to it. It didn't require a big infrastructural change, but it sent out a positive message."
Buddies and benefits
A handful of firms have gone beyond ensuring bathroom access.
Global technology firm ThoughtWorks hired a transgender person in its Bangalore office as part of a diversity initiative last year and went on to provide an office buddy and an external counsellor to its new employee to smooth the settling-in period.
And in a first, IBM — named as the world's most LGBT-inclusive company by Amsterdam-based Workplace Pride Foundation — will from this year cover gender affirmation surgery under its corporate health benefit plan, a spokeswoman for IBM India said.
Another major Indian IT firm that opened a new campus in Mumbai last year ensured at the planning stage it would have a unisex bathroom following requests from transgender employees.
Some firms are also hand-holding transgender staff during the initial employment period and keeping their identities discreet on request, but campaigners say the trend is restricted to big companies.
Nyra D'souza, a transgender woman, never took a bathroom break when she worked at a Mumbai outsourcing firm - uncomfortable in the men's washroom and not allowed in the women's facility.
It meant holding on for 15 hours before she reached home.
At job interviews, she had been told to consider fashion, beauty or films for a job "where I could be myself".
But when she was interviewed at Mumbai-headquartered Godrej — a leading Indian conglomerate with interests ranging from consumer goods to real estate — she was asked about her work experience, not gender.
This, a Godrej spokeswoman said, was in tune with the company's policy to make all interactions gender-neutral.
"Such experiences are limited only to big companies, not small," said D'souza, who finds others from her community struggling to find jobs, or dignity in the workplace if they do.
After the Supreme Court ruling, campaigners said more companies are coming forward to recruit transgender people, but are reluctant to make adaptations.
"Over the past year, we have got nearly 15 requests from companies that wish to hire a transgender, but they retreat when I ask them about bathroom access," said Koninika Roy of the Mumbai-based Humsafar Trust that works with the LGBT community and tries to match them with jobs.
The trust had one successful placement in the last year.
But Solidarity Foundation, a Bangalore-based rights group that works with sexual minorities, had more success - it placed 15 transgender people over the last year.
"Companies are becoming more open and talking about these issues, but integration is still not part of their DNA," said Shubha Chacko, executive director of Solidarity Foundation.
Chacko cited the case of a transgender person detained at the office gate by security guards on his first day at work.
"The biggest challenge in India is the mindset. They connect transgender to people who beg on the streets, do sex work or sing at weddings," said Vikram of Community Business.
"We still have a long way to go. A lot more work needs to be done." — Reuters