At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
If you haven’t had to rely on the services provided by working women’s centres (WWC), you’re unlikely to know what they are and the critical role they play. But for many women in Australia, the WWCs are the only free frontline service within reach, providing them with support and advice on work-related matters including underpayment, wage theft, parental leave, bullying and workplace sexual harassment and assault.
While working women's centres once existed in New South Wales, Tasmania, Queensland, South Australia and the Northern Territory, funding cuts over the years have meant they now only operate in the NT, QLD and SA. With branches in Darwin and Alice Springs, the Northern Territory Working Women's Centre (NTWWC) saw its core federal funding taken away in December 2020. It currently faces the direst situation, with the threat of closure by the end of the year looming unless it receives urgent government funding.
In May, the federal budget pledged $3.4 billion to support women, but only $200,000 was allocated to split between the QLD and NT working women’s centres.
Nicki Petrou, the director of the NTWWC, says the NT government gives the centre $200,000 a year, but another $700,000 annually is needed to keep it open. If the federal government doesn't commit to this funding soon, she fears being forced to make staff cuts, reduce operating hours from five to three or two days a week in September if that is even viable, and potentially closing doors in November.
“[The funding] will be able to at least fund us properly, and to be able to respond appropriately to the demand,” Petrou told Refinery29 Australia.
In the 12 months to 30 June 2021, the NTWWC saw a 29% increase in the number of clients serviced, and recorded seven times the number of sexual harassment matters. The centre has serviced many women who are potentially at a higher risk of sexual harassment due to geographical isolation or social and cultural factors.
Women from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds represented 47% of sexual harassment matters and 62% of sexual assault matters in the past year. First Nations women represented 9% of sexual harassment matters and 5% of sexual assault matters that occur in the workplace.
With a combination of legal, social work, business and mediation experience amongst its five team members, the NTWWC provides a “holistic” service to its clients.
"The holistic service is the wraparound support we and WWC’s provide, from industrial relations advice and representation, but also to ensure the client has the emotional and other supports needed especially at some very low periods in their lives when they may not be functioning at their best," said Petrou.
"So we help with documents and linking them up with the services they need," she continued. “We talk through their options and that might be where they might be able to put in a complaint to the employer or a sexual harassment complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Commission or the Human Rights Commission about what's been happening at work.
“We can also assist if they need to negotiate with employers, and sometimes they don't feel comfortable talking to their boss because maybe the boss is the person doing this, or he's very close to the other person who is.”
The structure of the NTWWC is different to the working women’s centres in SA and QLD. The SAWWC has limited but secure funding from the SA government for the next nine years, and a team of 10 including five lawyers, two advocacy officers, a workplace training officer, a communications officer and a client services officer.
After losing federal funding in 2016, the Working Women’s Centre in QLD merged with Basic Rights QLD, a community legal service. While it has state funding for the next three years and recent one-off federal funding of $100k from the Attorney-General’s Dept, it has still meant that it had to cut its services, and can only operate for three days a week.
Petrou said that across all three centres: “We all very much try and adopt that client-centred feminist approach and the wraparound support is really important.”
The first working women’s centres were founded in 1979, designed to help women that were not represented by a lawyer or union on workplace issues. The centre in NSW closed down in 2005, and Tasmania shut its doors a year later.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins recommended that the government consider establishing or re-establishing working women’s centres in jurisdictions where they do not currently exist. In recommendation 49 made in the Respect@Work report (based on a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces), Jenkins suggested that governments should provide “increased and recurrent funding to working women’s centres.”
“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.”
Abbey Kendall, the director of the SA Working Women’s Centre, said the government needs to take Jenkins’ recommendation seriously because “sexual harassment, and sexual violence in the workplace, in our view, is the number one work health and safety issue in Australia.”
“The Federal Government can make a decision tomorrow to say that the working women's centres are a priority and put proper funding into Queensland and the NT,” she told Refinery29 Australia.
“We should be funded to adequately deal and respond to an issue that is pervasive. It also ruins people's lives, and it kills people, and it's not being dealt with properly.”
However, before working women’s centres are reopened or established in other states and territories, she said the existing centres need security first.
“The current centres need stability in order to drive the establishment of centres in other states and territories. We need a peak body, which all needs to be funded and thought through, and really, the centres that currently exist need funding to be able to drive that work.”
Petrou agreed, saying: “It's about looking after the ones you have now to give you time to look at those [future centres].
“One of the things we've said and put out a number of times to the different ministers along the way, including Michaelia Cash's office, as the Attorney-General, is that ‘we've got the model [to follow]'.
Claire Moore, the acting director of the Queensland Working Women's Centre, reiterated the important role of the frontline service, as "working women's centres are often the only place for women who already isolated and afraid, as well unable to afford other services."
"The Respect at Work Recomendation called for these services to be funded because the evidence proves that they work and fill a real gap in access for the most vulnerable women," she said.
The lack of funding is even more disappointing as the WWC has provided workplace sexual harassment training for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
A spokesperson from the Attorney-General's Department told Refinery29 Australia reiterated that the federal government acknowledged Recommendation 49 in April 2021 by providing "$200,000 in the 2021-22 Budget to working women’s centres."
"The Australian Government committed to engaging with states and territories on funding for working women’s centres in the Roadmap for Respect in response to recommendation 49 of the Respect@Work Report. This commitment recognises that recommendation 49 was directed at all Australian Governments – Federal, States and Territories," said the spokesperson.
"The matter was discussed at a Meeting of Attorneys-General (MAG) on 9 June 2021. MAG agreed to task officials to review the scope of services provided by working women’s centres and like services, and to consider the feasibility of funding for services under the National Legal Assistance Partnership. Consultation remains ongoing."
As Jenkins put it: “If the centre were to close it would be a great loss, particularly at a time of such increased awareness of workplace sexual harassment within the community.”
With November just over two months away, time is ticking for Petrou’s team to secure the funding for the NTWWC.