Two in five women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Let that sink in for a moment. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue through survivor interviews, informative features and ongoing news coverage. The ultimate goal? To help dismantle workplace sexual harassment and assault in Australia.
Workplace sexual harassment is sadly a common experience in Australia that occurs in every industry and at all levels. But it is preventable, according to Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, who says the Respect@Work report serves as a catalyst for change.
In March 2020, the Australian Human Rights Commission released its Respect@Work report, the product of an 18-month inquiry – led by Jenkins – into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The report outlined 55 recommendations for government, business and community sectors to consider, indicating how Australia can better prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
A year later, women across the country gathered at #March4Justice rallies in March 2021, calling on the government to implement all 55 recommendations. The federal government responded in April with its ‘Roadmap for Respect’ report, though the plan doesn’t necessarily commit to implementing all 55 recommendations.
As female advocacy groups, support organisations and Jenkins herself continue to advocate for the implementation of all recommendations, here's a look at what the report covers and why it's significant in addressing workplace sexual harassment in Australia.
What Is The Respect@Work Report?
In June 2018, Jenkins was tasked with leading the National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces. The inquiry's purpose was to improve how Australian workplaces prevent and respond to sexual harassment.
The report’s findings were based on a survey of 10,000 workers, 460 written submissions and 60 public consultations with 600 participants including victims, government agencies, business groups and communities bodies.
The survey revealed that in 2018, one in three Australian workers had “experienced sexual harassment in the last five years” and that workplace sexual harassment cost the Australian economy an estimated $3.8 billion that year.
It also found Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were more likely to have experienced workplace sexual harassment than people who are non-Indigenous. Women, young people, LGBTQI workers, people with disability, those from CALD backgrounds, and migrant workers or workers on temporary visas were also identified as having greater exposure to workplace sexual harassment.
Based on the findings, the Respect@Work report outlines methods to prevent such harassment and proposes a refocused legal and regulatory framework that is less confusing for employers and workers. The report also highlights the long-term health and wellbeing effects for women who experience workplace sexual harassment and how victims can be better supported.
In her foreword accompanying the report, Jenkins said the report's recommendations are extremely important because "the current legal and regulatory system is simply no longer fit for purpose." The new model is victim-focused, evidence-based and framed through a "gender and intersectional lens."
Government's Response To The Respect@Work Report
The federal government responded in April with its ‘Roadmap for Respect’ report in which it implemented some recommendations, while simply 'noted' others.
For example, the government committed to extending the time limit for making a complaint to the Australian Human Rights Commission from six months to 24 months since the alleged discrimination occurred (Recommendation 22).
It also agreed to action Recommendation 16; that the exemption of state public servants from being held accountable for sexual harassment complaints under the Sex Discrimination Act is removed.
The government also agreed to review the Fair Work system to ensure and clarify that sexual harassment, using the definition in the Sex Discrimination Act, is expressly prohibited.
It also said it would amend the definition of ‘serious misconduct’ in the Fair Work Regulations 2009 to include sexual harassment (Recommendation 31) and that this behaviour within the workplace can justify immediate dismissal.
Last month Jenkins urged the federal government to impose an onus on employers to prevent sexual harassment, as the current Sex Discrimination Act only asks employers to account for their workplace's culture "when someone makes a complaint."
This recommendation hasn't been included by the Morrison government in the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, which seeks to implement six of the 55 recommendations from the report by making a number of amendments to the Fair Work Act.
Speaking at a Senate inquiry, she said Recommendation 17 needed to be implemented, whereby the Sex Discrimination Act is amended to introduce a positive duty on all employers to take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation.
She said the current legal framework encouraged employers to deter employees from complaining and was also very confusing state to state.
"Throughout our National Inquiry into workplace sexual harassment, which resulted in the Respect@Work report, we found that our laws must move from a reactive approach that relies on individual complaints by victims to one that requires preventative action to stop sexual harassment occurring in the first place," she told Refinery29 Australia.
"Respect@Work’s recommendation of introducing a positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act is central to achieving this shift. A positive duty will align the Sex Discrimination Act with safety laws, and require employers to take proactive steps to eliminating sexual harassment in their workplace."
Meanwhile, Recommendation 49 is another that's yet to be met with a commitment from the government. The recommendation suggested governments provide "increased and recurrent funding to working women’s centres" – a frontline service in NT, QLD and SA providing women with support and advice on work-related matters including underpayment, bullying and workplace sexual harassment and assault.
Jenkins also recommended the government consider establishing or re-establishing working women’s centres in jurisdictions where they do not currently exist.
"Working Women’s Centres provide an essential service to the community," Jenkins told Refinery29 Australia. "In particular, our National Inquiry found that they were well placed to address the intersectional needs of victim-survivors of sexual harassment in a way that other services may be unable to.
"We found that support, advice and advocacy for victim-survivors was best delivered through the holistic approach that Working Women’s Centres offer, and that’s why we recommended funding should continue."
While the government continues to take its time in implementing more recommendations, more Aussie women will sadly continue to suffer.
As Jenkins puts it in her foreword to the Respect@Work report, "There is an urgency for change. There is the momentum for reform." And this report is Australia's answer to helping better tackle workplace sexual harassment and assault.
If you or anyone you know has experienced sexual or domestic violence and is in need of support, please call 1800RESPECT (1800 737 732), the National Sexual Assault Domestic Family Violence Service