- The Guardian
- Issue #1978
When it comes to women’s rights progress, unfortunately, moves at a glacial pace. Earlier this month, parliament passed The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, and while there were some positive elements, many felt that much was left on the table.
What’s been the gain? Sexual harassment is now a fireable offence. Additionally, the amendments further clarify that under the Act, harassing a person based on their gender is prohibited. Importantly, it broadens the definition of what constitutes work and who is a worker, meaning vulnerable employees will be covered, such as people working from home. The legislation also opens the window for employees to lodge sexual harassment complaints with a twenty-four-month window with the Australian Human Rights Commission, which was originally only six months.
Furthermore, the Bill now makes sexual harassment a workplace health and safety issue, meaning “victims can apply for an ‘order to stop sexual harassment’ through the Fair Work Commission” (ABC).
One of the more crucial aspects of the Bill, particularly in light of recent parliamentary sexual assault allegations, closes a loophole that had exempted public officials – which includes judges, members of parliament and their staff – from being the subject of complaints under the act.
So what did the amendments leave out? One of the key recommendations made by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins that was not taken up was imposing a duty on employers to take reasonable steps to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. However, despite a push from the ALP and Greens, this recommendation was ultimately defeated by the government. Speaking on the importance of this recommendation Jenkins stated at the annual conference of the Australian Council of Superannuation Investors, “[That requirement] is the one thing that I will not let go. The idea that we have a piece of legislation that only comes to life if someone complains, we now know doesn’t work […]. Employers are saying ‘we are keen to do things differently’ and that is exactly what a positive duty does.”
Another key recommendation that was not taken up was over changes to the Human Rights Commission Act that would allow unions to bring claims to courts, allowing them to shoulder the expense and risk.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions said this was a missed opportunity.
“The Respect@Work report was a key opportunity for parties to bridge political divides to protect women — instead the Morrison government chose to shut down substantive change,” ACTU President Michele O’Neil said in a statement.
Of the twelve specific recommended legislative reforms, only six of the twelve were ultimately adopted.
The failure to adopt the most transformative aspect of the recommendations highlights that the Morrison government intends to keep the burden on individual women, rather than businesses ensure that their workplaces are operating in safe and appropriate ways.
We must continue to push for the adoption of the other six recommendations. While the adoption of these additional six recommendations will not solve the totality of workplace inequality, it will provide a solid foundation for women’s right to be advanced.