Amidst intense public pressure, the government has announced it is taking action on workplace sexual harassment with a plan that raises concerns over what has been left out, writes journalist Angus Hoy.
Fifteen months after receiving the Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces report from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and newly appointed Attorney-General Michaelia Cash government has announced a commitment to accepting most of the 55 recommendations of the 900-page report.
The ‘most’ in that sentence is doing a lot of work. The government’s Roadmap for Respect expresses agreement (either in full, in part or in principle) or “notes” the recommendations in the Respect@Work report – leaving plenty of room post-announcement for the government to fall short of community expectations.
The IEU contributed to the Respect@Work inquiry by directing our members to relevant surveys, as well as through our significant engagement with the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), Unions NSW and Unions ACT in the development of their input.
The Respect@Work report found that the current legal and regulatory system is “simply no longer fit for purpose” to address workplace sexual harassment. It recommends a new evidence-based, victim-focused model that is framed through a gender and intersectional lens. It would improve the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislative schemes already in place.
Importantly, the new model would require transparency, accountability and leadership from employers as it shifts from the current reactive model, that requires complaints from individuals, to a proactive model, which would require positive actions from employers.
The government’s ‘Roadmap’ has specifically ignored the recommendations by the Commissioner for stronger powers to investigate, new regulations under Work Health and Safety laws, and changes to the Fair Work Act.
The Roadmap commits to important education, training and awareness, but stops short on delivering real rights to women at work enshrined in legislation. Without these institutional mechanisms in place, the Roadmap will achieve little more than window dressing.
IEU Assistant Secretary and Co-Convenor of the IEU Women and Equity Committee, Pam Smith, expressed her concerns with the government’s belated response to the Respect@Work report.
“The Government does not at this stage recommend any enforceable protections for workers experiencing sexual harassment or violence or any positive responsibility for employers to ensure safe, harassment free workplaces,” said Smith.
The government has rejected a number of the report’s significant structural recommendations, including the recommendation to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, arguing that other legislation contains adequate provisions.
The government has also failed to accept the recommendation to change the Fair Work Act to explicitly prohibit sexual harassment, preferring instead to continue using the current ‘stop bullying order’ provisions in the context of sexual harassment.
The government has also specifically knocked back the request by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner for greater scope and powers to commence investigations.
In its foreword, the government’s Roadmap says one of their five key guiding principles is that “prevention must be our focus.” However, the government has rejected the report’s recommendation that the onus be placed on employers to take steps to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace.
“There is a need to strengthen the Fair Work Act, the Sex Discrimination Act and Work Health and Safety laws, as recommended by the Respect@Work report,” said Smith.
“Sadly, unless these legislative changes occur, the burden of making complaints remains on the victim and not on the employer for a safe work environment.”
Criticism from advocates and unions and the way forward
The failure of the government to fully implement the recommendations of the report has prompted criticism from the union movement and advocacy organisations. The ACTU has laid down a series of minimum actions and solutions that they say the government must implement to make meaningful change:
- Stronger work health and safety laws to make sure that employers are obliged to tackle the underlying causes of sexual harassment at work.
- Better access to justice for workers in our workplace laws by prohibiting sexual harassment in the Fair Work Act and providing a quick, easy, new complaints process, and providing 10 days paid family and domestic violence leave as a national minimum employment standard.
- Stronger powers for the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to make her own decisions to investigate industries and workplaces which are rife with sexual harassment, and positive duties on employers to take steps to eliminate sexual harassment.
- Ratification of the 2019 ILO Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment at work.
The government must intervene directly in the systems and structures that enable gender-based violence in our communities, our homes and our workplaces.
Education and awareness raising is important, but ultimately won’t result in a safer future for women if the federal government fails to take decisive action on prevention, resourcing of services and accountability mechanisms, law reform, and workplace sexual harassment.
The IEU cautiously welcomes the government’s initial commitments insofar as they address the recommendations in the Respect@Work Report, and call on the government to go further in pursuit of real, substantive change. Enough is enough.