Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021; Second Reading

5:29 pm

Photo of Helen PolleyHelen Polley (Tasmania, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

I'd like to make a contribution to this very important debate on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. This bill represents the Morrison government's overdue response to Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins's Respect@Work: national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces report. The final report, Respect@Work, was handed down to the government in January 2020 and made 55 recommendations to address the prevalence of sexual harassment in workplaces. It took this government more than a year and a half and a historic women's march to finally enact some form of a response.

Kate Jenkins reported in her review that, despite implementing world-leading reforms in 1984 with the Sex Discrimination Act, Australia now lags other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment. Workplace harassment not only causes untold psychological damage, but Deloitte Access Economics calculated that it also cost the Australian economy $3.8 billion in 2018 alone. The report made it very clear that sexual harassment is rife within Australian workplaces, that it is extremely damaging and that existing laws are not working to protect workers. It stated that reform is urgently needed, yet it took the Morrison government 18 months to respond, and this bill will not deliver the level of reform required. This did not stop Liberals from making a big, flashy statement. That's what they do. They made an announcement explaining that they had agreed to all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report, but, like with most things with this government, you must look at the fine detail. You have to look at the fine print. This bill, which has taken more than a year and a half to introduce, implements only six of the 55 recommendations in a watered-down reform. In its current form, this bill will not deliver the substantive change needed to address the systematic issues of sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. It shows that the Morrison government is not genuine in improving outcomes for women and in making workplaces safer for everyone.

The Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021 amends the Australian Human Rights Commission Act 1986, the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 and the Fair Work Act 2009 to improve the mechanisms for preventing and tackling workplace sexual harassment. We will not vote against this legislation, as we will not stand in the way of these changes that may help make workplaces safer. But we believe that additional amendments are needed. This bill does not adopt recommendation 17 of the Respect@Work report calling for the amendment of the Sex Discrimination Act to include a positive duty on employers to take responsible measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation in the workplace.

In a submission to the inquiry into this bill, the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, the SDA, reported that 39 per cent of SDA members experienced workplace sexual harassment in the last five years, which is significantly higher than the general workforce at 33 per cent. Alarmingly, this number is higher for female members under the age of 18, where over 50 per cent have experienced sexual harassment in the last five years. It sets an unacceptable precedent when you consider that retail and fast food are the most common industries in which young people get their first jobs and start their working lives. Given the high level of occurrence, it is essential that the Morrison government impose a positive duty on employers to take responsibility for eradicating workplace harassment.

Frontline workers in retail have been undercover heroes of this pandemic, keeping Australia going through lockdowns and ensuring we have access to essential goods and services. They are exhausted and unappreciated, in having deal with soaring volumes of sales with little time to prepare. They are putting their lives at risk every day. They deserve better from the Morrison government, from protection from workplace harassment to being prioritised—and I mean prioritised—in the vaccine rollout. They continue to be let down on both of these fronts.

It was only in the midst of the pandemic, as a result of the pressure applied on the government at the start of this year over their handling of the Brittany Higgins case, that women were miraculously moved up on the agenda. But, as with most of the government's responses, it's superficial in nature. Australian women need action from the government, not just words. They need real leadership, not someone who goes into hiding when things get tough. In the Respect@Work report, Commissioner Jenkins made it clear that the prevention of sexual and sex based harassment in the workplace would require a long-term, sustained effort, leadership and political will. With this watered-down bill before us, Australian women will not get that from the Morrison government. They will not get it from this cabinet.

It was only after Senator Cash's appointment as Attorney-General that the Morrison government even bothered to respond to the report. The previous minister took no action. I wonder why? The government argued that it was busy managing COVID-19 and Australia's recovery, but I call that into question: what recovery? As we have said time and time again in this place, the Prime Minister had two crucial jobs during this pandemic. One was to respond by rolling out the vaccines as quickly and as effectively as possible, which he hasn't been able to do because he didn't bother buying enough vaccines to vaccinate the entire population. The second was to build purpose-built quarantine facilities. He bailed on both of those.

Senator Birmingham has already advised that New South Wales is likely to be locked off to the rest of Australia for the rest of the year. The Morrison government should have foreseen the havoc that the delta variant would cause in our country, but they failed to heed the warnings and instead did nothing. There was plenty of evidence from what was happening overseas, but this Prime Minister, along with the Minister for Health and Aged Care, failed to respond in an appropriate manner. Now our death toll has increased. Frontline workers continue to put their health at risk. Families will be separated for months. Events will be cancelled. Our economy will probably slip into recession.

Since June there have been up to 15 million Australians in lockdown—that is, 60 per cent of our population. Not only is this hurting our economy; lockdowns are associated with an increase in domestic violence and, in particular, violence against women. As was experienced last year, the people who have lost their jobs first through the lockdowns are casuals, and women are overrepresented among the people who have lost their jobs.

The government are all spin. They have no intention of bringing meaningful reform to workplaces. They are full of excuses when it comes to the vaccine rollout. There is a complete refusal to commit to a national quarantine system. How can we expect anything different when it comes to protecting Australians from harassment in their workplaces? Time and time again this government has failed to enact meaningful reform, and this bill is just a tactical ruse for a government weighed down by allegations.

I call on the Morrison government—to show that they do, in fact, want to bring meaningful change to the systemic issues in workplaces, with harassment being of such prevalence—to enact the full suite of recommendations of the Respect@Work report. This is the only way to ensure that there are more robust measures in place to prevent, address and redress sexual harassment in the workplace.

A Labor government would implement and adopt all of the recommendations of the Respect@Work report—that's all 55 recommendations, not six, which is all this government is attempting, with this feeble piece of legislation, to enact: six, out of 55.

Despite not being specifically recommended by the report, we have also moved on an amendment to implement 10 days of paid domestic family violence leave. It is not only Labor but also stakeholders who believe that this is essential in reforming women's safety at work. We all know that economic independence is instrumental in helping someone escape from family violence, and this amendment would provide a safety net. It would give victims the time to deal with any matters that they need to deal with, in order for them to take steps to leave the situation of abuse which they have found themselves in. You should not have to resign or be terminated because of this.

In my lifetime, women of my generation would have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace on quite a regular basis. There's not one of my cohort of friends who has not experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace or who has not had to prove her worth for promotion, based on her gender. I remember, in one of my positions in a short-term finance company, when I lived in Melbourne, when men joined the company they were able to join the superannuation fund, but women like me might have been invited to join that superannuation fund after they had worked for the company for 10 years—that was the lived experience. Well, thank goodness for Paul Keating and what the Labor government did in introducing superannuation for every worker in this country, because superannuation was one of the economic circumstances in which your gender was used against you in workplaces. Regrettably, it is only a Labor government that will meaningfully improve outcomes for women. Only a Labor government can be trusted to bring the reforms to Australian workplaces so that we can again be a world leader when it comes to prevention of discrimination.

As I said earlier, in this country we led the way, but—as we've talked about so many times in this chamber—we've now had eight years of Liberal governments and we seem to be falling further and further behind in so many areas. We certainly haven't taken the opportunity to learn, in relation to this pandemic, about what happened through the US, Europe and, particularly, England, and to make sure that people weren't having to wait for a vaccine. We still have a situation where too many people can't even get an appointment yet for the vaccine. We've spoken on a number of occasions today about how many aged-care workers are still waiting to get their first jab. We still don't know, of the people who are delivering home-care-package care into older, vulnerable Australians' homes, how many still have not had a vaccine.

But we do know that the majority of those in this country being penalised and discriminated against based on their gender or age are women, time and time again. Sexual harassment can go for both genders. That is deplorable as well, and no-one here would say otherwise. But it's time that we spoke up for women and made the changes necessary to keep workplaces safe for all.


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