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Government legislation not enough to stamp out sexual harassment in Australian workplaces

Health Industry Hub | September 6, 2021 |
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Human Resources: The Morrison Government has taken action to strengthen national laws to better protect Australians against sexual harassment in the workplace, but but according to Diversity Council Australia (DCA), while a step in the right direction, in its current form the Respect at Work Bill is insufficient to really stamp out sexual harassment.

The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, which passed Parliament mid last week, implemented the Australian Government’s response to only 6 out of 55 recommendations in the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s Respect@Work Report.

Lisa Annese, CEO, Diversity Council Australia, said “While we were pleased to see the Government’s Respect At Work Bill pass in the Senate, DCA is disappointed that the Government didn’t take this opportunity to fully implement the legislative recommendations from Respect@Work.

“We have a moment, right now, to create lasting change for future generations of men and women. I just hope the Government will listen to the organisations calling for this change and amend their Bill when it goes to the lower house. Otherwise, it’s a missed opportunity to create safe and respectful workplaces for everyone.

“At the end of the day, businesses are not really about the products or services, they are about people. And if you proactively create an environment at work where individuals are treated with dignity and respect, you will be rewarded through increased efficiency, innovation, loyalty and customer service.”

Ms Annese added “At the moment, we have a system whereby attention is only given to the actions an employer has taken to prevent sexual harassment after a complaint is made. Changing the law in this way would incentivise employers to address systemic drivers of sexual harassment and help prevent it occurring in the first place.”

The Bill gives people two years to make a complaint, extending the time period from six months, in recognition of their fears about coming forward. The bill also removes the ‘exemption of state and territory public servants and clarifies that the Sex Discrimination Act extends to members of parliament and judges at the federal and state and territory level.’ It also makes sexual harassment, defined as unwelcome and demeaning conduct that could reasonably be anticipated to offend, humiliate or intimidate, a valid reason for dismissal.

“This legislation is a critical step forward and will enhance protections against sexual harassment and other forms of sex discrimination in Australian workplaces,” said the Attorney-General, Michaelia Cash.

“Every Australian is entitled to feel safe at work, so this legislation is just one of the ways we are taking action to build a safe and respectful culture in Australian workplaces,” said the Attorney-General.

Assistant Minister to the Attorney-General, Assistant Minister for Women and Assistant Minister for Industrial Relations Senator Amanda Stoker said the legislation is a crucial step forward.

“Equality of opportunity is a fundamental Liberal value,” said the Assistant Attorney-General.

“By implementing the Roadmap for Respect, the Morrison Government is delivering the safety at work that is essential to women’s financial advancement and leadership.”

Passed Legislation

The Government responded to recommendations 16, 20, 21, 22, 29 and 30 of the Respect@Work Report by:

  • creating a new object clause to make it clear that the Sex Discrimination Act aims to achieve, so far as practicable, equality of opportunity between men and women
  • clarifying that harassing a person on the basis of sex is prohibited under the Sex Discrimination Act
  • protecting more workers from sexual harassment, particularly vulnerable workers, by broadening the scope of people covered by the Sex Discrimination Act clarifying that members of parliament and judges (and their staff) are covered by the Sex Discrimination Act
  • clarifying that a complaint of victimisation can be considered as either a civil or criminal matter
  • extending the timeframe for which a complaint can be made to the Australian Human Rights Commission to reduce procedural barriers for complainants under the Sex Discrimination Act
  • clarifying that the Fair Work Commission may make orders to stop sexual harassment in the workplace
  • clarifying that sexual harassment can be a valid reason for dismissal under the Fair Work Act

The legislation also amends the Fair Work Act to enable an employee to take compassionate leave if they, or their spouse or de facto partner, has a miscarriage. This measure will reduce discrimination against pregnancy and overall enhance women’s economic security.

The legislation is also complemented by amendments to the Fair Work Regulations which implement recommendation 31 of the Respect@Work Report.


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