On 19 June 2018, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins launched the Australian Human Rights Commission National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment at Work. The Inquiry is the first of its kind in Australia and the world.
Michele O’Neil, President of the ACTU has been appointed to the panel conducting the Inquiry.
The Inquiry has been prompted by the Commission’s most recent sexual harassment survey results, which indicate the prevalence of the problem has increased since the last survey in 2012.
Sexual harassment disproportionally affects women with one in five experiencing sexual harassment at some time, compared to one in 20 men.
Sexual harassment is any unwanted or unwelcome sexual behaviour, which makes a person feel offended, humiliated or intimidated.
It may include conduct ranging from leering, unnecessary familiarity, insults of a sexual nature, intrusive questions about your private life, displaying images of a sexual nature, sending sexually explicit emails or texts, unwanted requests for sex or dates to behaviour that may be considered a criminal offence, such as assault, stalking or indecent exposure. The conduct can occur between an employee and employer, colleagues or other people in the workplace such as clients.
Commissioner Jenkins commented that she has had many men and women come forward to her in recent months to tell their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace and that she recognises the devastating impact sexual harassment has on individuals’ lives, as well as the significant costs to business and community.
The National Inquiry will review and report on:
- the prevalence, nature and reporting of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, by sector;
- the use of technology and social media to perpetrate work-related harassment;
- the drivers of workplace sexual harassment, including looking at whether some individuals are more likely to experience sexual harassment and whether workplace characteristics and practices are more likely to increase the risk of sexual harassment;
- the current legal framework;
- existing measures and good practice being undertaken;
- the economic impacts; and
- recommendations to address sexual harassment in workplaces.
The Inquiry will run over the next 12 months and submissions are due by 31 January 2019. The Commission will also be running public consultations. In a recent press release, Commissioner Jenkins said the purpose of the consultations will be to speak with individuals and organisations from all over Australia about their experiences in order to develop concrete, practical strategies to prevent and better respond to workplace sexual harassment.
The ACTU will make a submission to the Inquiry and is in the process of developing a survey to gather information. Such work will need to be done sensitively, confidentially and provide access to support to members who have experienced the impacts of sexual harassment.
The Inquiry provides an opportunity to raise the systemic issues that make some workplaces more susceptible to sexual harassment occurring, such as gender inequality, unsafe work practices and the impact of insecure work. Casual, fixed term or agency employees may, for example, feel more vulnerable in their workplaces and therefore more at risk of inappropriate workplace behaviour. It is harder to speak out when your next shift or job is not guaranteed.
An examination of the legislative framework for dealing with complaints of sexual harassment will form part of the Inquiry. Currently, the Sex Discrimination Act allows for individuals to make a complaint about behaviour, but this is dependent on the individual and such complaints are often resolved out of court. Changes to the Sex Discrimination Act and the Fair Work Act may provide greater opportunity for unions to make claims on behalf of individuals or groups of individuals and to ensure employers are held accountable for poor workplace practices.
Workplace health and safety legislation could be strengthened to create a greater obligation on employers to take all reasonable steps to ensure a workplace is safe from harassment. There are many measures set out in the Change the Rules campaign that are aimed at decreasing worker’s vulnerability in the workplace. These measures are designed to produce multiple benefits to workers, not least, a reduction in sexual harassment in the workplace.
Our membership, of nurses, midwives and assistants in nursing are predominantly women. We know, therefore, that a disproportionate number of our members will have been affected by sexual harassment in some form over their working lives. The national Inquiry will be an important opportunity to contribute to identifying workplace measures and legislative changes that will reduce the incidence and impact of sexual harassment in the workplace.
Federal Industrial Officer