Senate debates

Tuesday, 31 August 2021


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

12:13 pm

Photo of Larissa WatersLarissa Waters (Queensland, Australian Greens) Share this | Hansard source

[by video link] I rise to speak, finally, on this bill to protect women in all workplaces and to attempt to deliver, following the report of Commissioner Jenkins, a safe workplace for women. But it takes a government like the Morrison-Joyce government to be 17 months late to the party and then to leave out the key point of the Jenkins review into keeping workplaces safe. This government has managed to belatedly put forward a bill that misses the key recommendation that the Sex Discrimination Commissioner put forward, which is a positive duty on employers to provide a safe workplace for their workers—mainly women, who are the ones who are inevitably sexually harassed in so many workplaces. Here we are, with the Prime Minister once again really failing to grapple with and understand the predicament that so many women are in and once again treating women like a political problem to be managed, rather than actually listening to the advice, acting on it and providing a safe workplace for women.

It feels like an election's in the offing, because the government have taken 17 months to get to this point and now they're hastily rushing through a bill that doesn't actually address all of the recommendations of the Respect@Work report which was tabled in March last year, and they've provided no explanation for their failure to do that. But one look at the number of women in the government's ranks perhaps answers that question. This government has the opportunity to provide a safe workplace for workers across the country and, rather than do that and act on the advice of the Jenkins report, despite saying that it was going to, it's now put forward a bill that leaves that main point out. I'm genuinely baffled but perhaps not really surprised, if I'm honest, that, once again, the government has failed to deliver for women.

Well, we're sick of this. We are sick and tired of the government not understanding the predicament that women are in. From its botched response to the pandemic, which has been felt disproportionately by women, its belated and botched response now to women in all workplaces and its absolutely botched response to the issues of harassment in this very workplace of Parliament House, there's no other conclusion that can be drawn: this government just does not understand women and it actually doesn't really care that much about addressing the situation that we're in. That's the only conclusion that can be drawn.

The Respect@Work report was initially on the books of Minister Porter, where it went nowhere and gathered dust. We all know that Minister Porter has been accused of a historical rape, but he remains in cabinet, albeit with a different ministry. This bill is now under the auspices of a different minister, and we've finally seen a bill rolled out, but it leaves out the key point. There's nothing that typifies the Morrison government better than this bill: it's late and it misses the point.

I do want to talk about some of the features of this bill, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, which we will be supporting. There are some good bits in the bill that actually implement some of the recommendations of Commissioner Jenkins. But then I'll come to the amendments that the Greens will move to fix the bits that the government's forgotten about or deliberately left out because it doesn't want to offend people, perhaps. The bill includes sex based harassment as a separate offence, which is positive. It recognises that not all harassment based on gender is sexual in nature. Some of it's just misogyny. It finally makes politicians and judges subject to the Sex Discrimination Act. Why politicians and judges were exempt in the first place is just beyond me, and the past few years have highlighted just how absurd that absence has been. I hope that the inclusion of those roles will really herald a change in the culture of parliamentary offices—and judicial offices, for that matter. We want women to aspire to those roles and to know that they will be safe and respected in those workplaces.

The bill extends the time in which complaints of discrimination and harassment can be made. That's a positive thing. It recognises that it takes an awful lot of guts and courage to raise these issues and that often it takes some time for a worker to make the decision to progress a complaint. They should have the time to do that. Sadly, it often takes the worker having moved on from that workplace to have the ability to make the complaint, because, inevitably, it's women that suffer the consequences and harassers, who are so often men, are the ones that often get to keep their jobs. Sometimes they even get promoted, particularly if they're in the Liberal Party. But that's why the extension of time within which complaints are to be taken is so important.

This bill also allows workers who are sexually harassed to apply for a stop harassment order from the Fair Work Commission. That's very positive. We support that. It removes the exemption that state government employees currently have—also much needed. It's much needed in particular because this was the only facet that had been excluded. All of the other antidiscrimination elements were able to be pursued federally or at the state level. This was the last one. I want to, at this stage, acknowledge Jac Woodhouse, who's been in contact with my office over several years.

She's been a long-term advocate for making sure that state government employees can make a complaint under the Sex Discrimination Act, not just under state laws. Jac was driven by her own experience of being discriminated against and bullied from her job, and she fell between the cracks as a result of this exemption. I hope that she draws some comfort when this loophole is finally closed.

The bill extends protections against sexual harassment to all paid and unpaid workers, including volunteers, interns and the self-employed. That's positive. Also, it provides five days of compassionate leave to workers affected by miscarriage. This is outside the scope of the Respect@Work reforms, but it recognises that workers experiencing trauma should have access to paid leave. That's very welcome. The same rationale should be extended to survivors of family and domestic violence. The Greens have long campaigned for 10 days of paid family and domestic violence leave to be available to workers. Indeed, amendments will be moved. The Greens have circulated amendments. I understand the Labor Party will also be circulating their amendments. This is a great opportunity to finally have paid family and domestic violence leave for workers, to keep that connection with the workplace and to provide survivors with the best chance of getting their life back in order after the epidemic of violence that so many workers face.

So, there are some positives in this bill, but, as I said, it leaves out the key point. The scope of the problem really warrants a better response. The Fourth national survey on sexual harassment in Australian workplaces found that 40 per cent of women—that's more than one-third of all workers—have been sexually harassed at work. That is a thoroughly unacceptable number—40 per cent of women, and that's more than a third of workers. So it's about bloody time we had this bill. I wish it were better, and I hope some of the amendments are passed to provide a safe workplace for women and all workers.

When we had the Senate inquiry into this bill, the Women's Legal Centre ACT and JobWatch said that calls to their services about sexual harassment had increased threefold over the past two years. This problem is not going away; it is only getting worse. We need a broad-scale cultural change in workplaces, and in society more broadly, to make sure that women are not being sexually harassed in their place of work. Sexual harassment has serious and enduring impacts on workers, and everyone—on the broader society. It can destroy workers' self-esteem, confidence, productivity, career progression, and overall health and wellbeing. It is the ultimate example of the gender inequality that persists and the grip that patriarchy has on our decision-making organisations.

It also costs an awful lot. The cost of sexual harassment is estimated at $3.5 billion each year in lost productivity and each case of harassment represents around four working days of lost output. Parliament needs to fix this problem, not just in our own workplace but in workplaces everywhere. The Respect@Work report really canvassed the scope of the problem and it set out a comprehensive, targeted set of reforms to tackle it. It was a holistic package of 55 recommendations to address discrimination and the structural inequalities to make workplaces safe. We need to implement the full suite of those recommendations if we are to achieve the goal of safe and respectful workplaces.

When the government finally issued its response to the Respect@Work report—13 months after the fact—I read the press release and it claimed that it would implement all of the recommendations; it accepted all of the recommendations. Well, the devil was in the detail, because, now that we've seen the bill, the government, in fact, has not accepted all of the recommendations. It is failing to act on the main recommendations that Commissioner Jenkins made, which went to a positive duty on employers to maintain a safe workplace. That was the centrepiece of the report, and this bill doesn't even tackle it. It took the Greens to initiate an amendment weeks ago, and the Labor Party's now doing the same. In fact, I believe we're collaborating and we'll be moving a joint amendment.

No-one should be blocking an obligation for employers to provide a safe workplace. I presume the government are going to vote against the amendment. Please, think before you do so. This should not be a political issue.

The right of workers to be safe at work and the right of women to not be sexually harassed at any time, let alone in their workplace, should not be something that you can vote against. We'll wait to see how the vote goes, but I'm more and more incredulous at the new lows this government seems to find every single day.

The vast majority of submissions to the Senate inquiry into this bill called for the implementation of the full suite of 55 recommendations. I don't know what more can be said about the need for it. Eliminating workplace sexual harassment will take a big cultural shift. It's long past time that we began that cultural shift. A positive duty to create and maintain a safe workplace is the best way to achieve that. The vast majority of submitters to the Senate inquiry emphasised that that positive duty was critical to achieve the broader objectives, and I really don't understand what the government are missing here in not seeing that the positive duty is in fact crucial. They contend that there's already a duty in the fair work laws, but it's clearly not working. If it were working, we wouldn't see one-third of workers being sexually harassed.

It was laughable, because even the Minerals Council of Australia, with whom I frequently disagree, agreed in the Senate inquiry. Tania Constable, their CEO, said:

MCA agrees with the government and others that a positive duty already exists in workplace health and safety law … However, the positive duty that already exists works for traditional physical health and safety risks; it is clearly not working for sexual harassment. Therefore, given the significant issue, we support there being a positive duty in the Sex Discrimination Act.

It wasn't just the Minerals Council, whose tune the government usually dances to. It was also the ACTU, the CPSU, the Law Council, the Discrimination Law Experts Group, the National Foundation for Australian Women, the Women's Legal Centre, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights and the Diversity Council. The vast majority of submitters could see that you've got to have a positive duty on employers to create a safe workplace or you won't fix this problem of 40 per cent of women being sexually harassed at work. So, as I mentioned, the Greens and Labor will be moving a joint amendment to give effect to that most central of recommendations by Commissioner Jenkins, and we beg the government to put politics aside and just do the right thing and support that amendment. It should have been in their own bill. There's no justification for not supporting that amendment. How can they possibly not want women to be safe at work? I genuinely don't understand.

We'll be moving some other amendments as well. An important one is on the need for representative action to be able to be taken. It takes an awful lot of guts for an individual worker to challenge their colleague or their boss, and it often comes at the expense of them keeping that role. It shouldn't be a weight just on individuals' shoulders. Representative actions should be allowed to be taken to fix what is a systemic issue. We also want to make sure that the Human Rights Commission can undertake reviews of systemic workplace issues of their own accord rather than just when the minister asks them to, and we want to make sure that costs are not a barrier to taking action. So we'll be moving that and a host of other amendments when it comes to the committee stage—if we get to that stage before the election. The government has a women problem, and this bill really shows you why.


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