Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


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

6:19 pm

Photo of Jess WalshJess Walsh (Victoria, Australian Labor Party) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I too rise to speak on the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021. This is the government's response to the landmark Respect@Work report on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, so it is also their response to the one in three people, mostly women, who have experienced sexual harassment at work.

These are women who have experienced great harm, have lost jobs and income and are still living with the long-term effects of their experiences. They are women who deserve and expect urgent action from this government.

Instead, we have a response that has been described by experts as a missed opportunity and a failure, a half-hearted version of the substantial reforms that this crisis of sexual harassment deserves. It's a response that shows this government knows what needs to be done but is simply refusing to do it.

The Respect@Work report was groundbreaking, a world-first inquiry into workplace sexual harassment. It shone a giant spotlight onto the experiences of working women in this country, women who too often are made to endure damaging and traumatic harassment just on the basis of their gender. The personal stories in the Respect@Work report were a call for change—urgent change.

But, instead of answering that call, this government chose to ignore the report. The Prime Minister and the former Attorney-General Mr Porter left it on their desks, ignored for over a year. For over a year, they refused to take action. They even refused to meet with the Sex Discrimination Commissioner to discuss the report's recommendations. While they let this report gather dust, they spent their time defending their own reputations about the very behaviour that this report sought to uncover. They stood by as minister after minister and member after member was caught up in the various scandals and allegations that we know this government had to endure. They refused to take any serious action, to show any leadership and to make clear that sexual and sex based harassment is completely unacceptable in this country today. They refused to show leadership not just with words and spin but through real action and urgent change. It wasn't until tens of thousands of women took to the streets in the March4Justice protests that this government finally started to care. Finally, over a year after this urgent report was handed down, the new Attorney-General, Senator Cash, has responded. This is a government that is always dragged kicking and screaming to take action. Then, when they get there, they act with half-responses and half-measures.

Let me be clear: we absolutely welcome the opportunity to finally begin implementing the important and urgent recommendations of Commissioner Jenkins. But, as it stands, this bill is nowhere near enough. It is nowhere near strong enough to deliver the changes that the commissioner recommended. This bill fails to implement 14 of the 55 recommendations which would see women be safer at work. Labor's amendments will strengthen this bill in line with the recommendations of the report. Critically, our amendments will ensure that sexual and sex based harassment are properly addressed in workplaces. Labor have committed to implementing all 55 recommendations. That commitment goes further than just this bill. A Labor government will work with employers, workers, unions and legal experts to finalise and implement stronger laws as a matter of priority in government.

The Respect@Work report clearly says that Australia's existing laws are out of date. They are failing to protect workers, and reform is urgently needed—reform that this government has just not delivered. Labor's amendment to this bill seeks to introduce a positive duty on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place. This amendment acts on recommendation 17 of the Respect@Work report, a recommendation which is supported by both unions and employer bodies and which the government have ignored. Labor's amendment will ensure that employers have a duty to create and maintain safe workplaces, because we know that the cases that are reported are just the tip of the iceberg. It's not enough for employers just to react to complaints that are made; they need to actually take active measures in the first place to stop the harassment from happening.

A recent inquiry into sexual harassment at mining sites in Western Australia revealed that BHP has taken disciplinary action and fired 48 workers in relation to inappropriate sexual behaviour in the past two years. But evidence from the Western Mine Workers Alliance showed that just four in 10 women FIFO workers felt encouraged to report that harassment in the first place, and half of them said workers are not supported through the reporting process. So we know that the incidences of sexual harassment that were acted on were just the tip of the iceberg and that there are many barriers to reporting sexual harassment. Insecure work is one. Fear of victimisation is another. Trauma and shame are others.

Taking action against sexual harassment should not be reliant on the courage of the victim. Taking action against sexual harassment should mean stopping it before it actually starts. Positive duties would require employers to take reasonable and proportionate steps to prevent this harassment. This is what would really mark a shift from the current reactive model that relies on workers having the courage and the means to make complaints. We need to shift that model to a proactive model that requires employers to take initiative to create workplaces that are free from harassment. Importantly, these duties will require employers to consider all aspects of the workplace when taking those reasonable steps to prevent harassment from staff, from management and from customers.

In 2016 the union for retail and fast-food workers, the SDA, conducted a survey with the Human Rights Commission on the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment amongst its members. The survey found that one in three incidents of workplace sexual harassment experienced by members were perpetrated by customers. A young woman under the age of 18 said in her response to the survey:

all the times I have been inappropriately touched or commented on, it has been by customers. I feel as if I can't tell them to stop because I don 't want to be rude to a customer.

In my own time, before coming to the Senate, I was proud to stand with workers against sexual harassment in the hospitality sector. I heard so many stories from young women who were harassed, stalked and pinned against bars by customers, and they received absolutely no support from their management. A survey of hospitality workers at the time showed 90 per cent had experienced sexual harassment and 19 per cent had been sexually assaulted at work.

These young workers deserve to be safe at work and safe from harassment, whether that be from other employees, management or customers. It is employers who are responsible for making these workplaces safe. Indeed, many employers have signed up to zero-tolerance measures through the Respect is the Rule program in the hospitality sector, putting workers' rights to be safe over the assumption that customers are always right. The positive duty obligations in Labor's amendment will require employers to take action towards eliminating harassment from all areas of the workplace, including those customers. In order for the positive duty obligations to be effective, Labor's amendment will ensure that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner has the power to investigate and enforce compliance.

This bill is a direct response to the Respect@Work report, but it is also a chance for the parliament to make further steps to improve women's safety. The Respect@Work report found that gender inequity is an underlying cause of sexual harassment. Recognising the unique experiences of women workers is an important step in reversing this inequality.

As part of the bill, the government has included the provision of compassionate leave for miscarriages. Labor unequivocally supports this change and acknowledges how impactful this will be on those who experience miscarriage. This is absolutely the right thing to do. In times of immense personal trauma, a person should not have to worry about losing pay or losing their job. They should be supported with paid leave to allow them time to process, and deal with, these deeply personal matters. We agree with this. We also believe this should extend to those experiencing domestic violence. That's why Labor's amendment to legislate 10 days paid domestic violence leave is also critically important—no-one should have to choose between their livelihood and their safety.

This leave will allow workers who are facing domestic violence access to 10 days paid leave. That means they don't have to worry about their pay or job while they make the incredibly brave decision to get help or seek support. The government have acknowledged the need to address gender equality in workplaces through changes to leave entitlements, so supporting Labor's further amendment should be a no-brainer. Labor's amendments to this bill are about taking real action, because, as it stands, this bill is a slap in the face to workers who just want to feel safe and respected at work—workers who deserve a prime minister and a government that will stand up for them and show leadership for them.

Of the 55 recommendations made by the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, this government is ignoring 14 critical recommendations. Women of Australia are struggling to believe the Prime Minister and his promises that he takes this issue seriously. It's not hard to see why: 40 per cent of women and 25 per cent of men have been sexually harassed at work in the last five years. Workplace sexual harassment is costing our economy $3.5 billion per year. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins found that there is an urgency for change. The Morrison government has failed to meet this urgency, and it is failing Australian women.

Only Labor understands this urgency. Only Labor will take the action needed to implement all 55 recommendations of the Respect@Work report. If those across the chamber do not support our amendments to this bill, a Labor government will introduce stronger laws as a matter of priority.


No comments