The Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill 2022 will make a big difference in the lives of many Australians because everyone deserves to feel safe and be safe in their workplace. Regardless of where you are, the type of work you do, who you work with or how often you work, you should have the reassurance and the certainty that you are safe from harassment and other forms of behaviour that just have no place in our workplaces.
This is not currently the case, and we hear of far too many instances of sexual harassment in our workplaces. It’s an issue that too many Australians come up against during their working lives, and we’ve waited a long time for this legislation. As someone who in the last parliament advocated for the previous government to get on and implement the recommendations of the Respect@Work report, I am so pleased to be standing here today as this government gets on with doing that work.
The Respect@Work report, which was delivered by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in March 2020, found that 33 per cent of people who’d been in the workforce in the preceding five-year period had experienced workplace sexual harassment. They’re terrible statistics—that’s four in 10 working women, and one in four working men. The statistics show that gender inequality is a significant factor in many instances of sexual harassment in the workplace. This fact is borne out by figures showing that women are much more likely to experience sexual harassment in their place of work compared to men.
So many women have stories—they’ve shared them with me—of feeling disempowered and feeling unsure about how they can take forward a complaint about inappropriate behaviour that they just should not have faced in their workplace. We know that the current laws have not been up to dealing with this, and this bill goes to addressing that issue. Those women should not be confused. They should not feel like there’s nowhere for them to go. They should not feel like it’s too hard to prove that something happened. It shouldn’t be brushed off by saying, ‘That bloke didn’t quite get it; he’s a little bit old school.’ None of these things are appropriate. None of them are acceptable. Everyone should be safe in their workplace.
An important part of this bill is recognising what isn’t working now. The Respect@Work report found that the existing frameworks relating to workplace sexual harassment are complex, difficult to navigate, focus on reacting rather than preventing, and place too much of a burden on the individual experiencing the harassment to make a complaint. It shouldn’t be up to the victim to do all the work here to get the outcome that they need and deserve.
Ending sexual harassment at work is our goal, and this is achievable. This bill is a big step forward and will make a difference to the lives of many working Australians. It was ignored for far too long by the previous government. I think one of the reasons why so many women around Australia felt let down by the previous government was that they didn’t adequately respond to this report. In fact it sat on a shelf for years until it got looked at a bit, but not enough.
Again, I say to all the women who have shared with me their stories of having to put up with this type of behaviour, of feeling like there is nowhere for them to go because the paths open to them aren’t going to actually deal with this sort of behaviour: this bill is for you, and it will make a difference. The government does have a role to play in making workplaces safe. We can set the direction, and we can help improve the practices of workplaces that might be falling short.
It’s also appropriate to acknowledge here that the workplaces we as parliamentarians work in and operate have also fallen short far too many times. Through another body of work from Kate Jenkins, the Set the standard report, we know that that has absolutely been the case in this building. We also know that we’re on the way to raising the standard of behaviour and improving the structures that govern our parliamentary workplaces. As we do this work in the broader community, we also must not forget that there is a lot of work for us to do in this place and across all the places that we as parliamentarians work in. We mustn’t take that work for granted. It’s something that all of us have to be involved in and dedicated to.
This bill implements seven changes recommended by Kate Jenkins to achieve our goal of ending sexual harassment in the workplace. The biggest change, and the one that I think will make the most difference in people’s lives, is that there will now be a positive duty on employers to take reasonable measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as much as possible. While there’s a role for everyone to play in making workplaces safe, we’re saying with this bill that there’s a responsibility on employers to be setting the standard. They’re generally the people best placed to prevent discrimination and harassment within a workforce. This bill places this principle front and centre. It will ensure that employers are proactive in making their workplace a safe environment and will hopefully help to avoid the conditions that create a toxic workplace by not putting the onus on the employee to think: ‘Do I have a pathway to report this? What might I have been doing wrong? Did I just respond to that person in the wrong way?’ It’s not on the employee. It is a responsibility of the employer to make sure that the workplace is free of sexual harassment. This bill recognises that merely looking for remedies for misconduct will not deliver the changes we need to see in workplaces. It is accepted practice that employers have responsibilities to their employees, particularly on issues like workplace health and safety. What we’re doing with this bill is complementing those well-established practices, particularly the idea that employers are required to ensure that their employees’ physical and psychological health and safety are maintained.
This bill will also strengthen the arm of the Australian Human Rights Commission and provide it with new functions to assess and enforce compliance with the new positive duty on employers. The commission will have the ability to give compliance notices to employers that are found not to be meeting their obligations to their employees. This will assist employers in making sure they are taking the steps they must to make their workplaces safer. Safe workplaces are actually good for all of us. They’re good for workers, they’re good for bosses and they’re good for all of us who use the services or goods of that workplace. They are a win-win-win for our entire community.
The Respect@Work report noted, amongst other issues, that hostile workplace environments increase the risk of someone experiencing unlawful discrimination, including sexual harassment. The bill will change part of the Sex Discrimination Act to prohibit conduct that results in an offensive, intimidating and humiliating environment for people of one sex.
The act will also be amended to state that one of its aims is to achieve substantive equality between men and women. Concerns raised during the consultation on Commissioner Jenkins’s report included the uncertainty that applicants face when seeking to resolve their complaints through the courts. So through this bill the government will deliver a costs-protection provision, reflecting one of the report’s recommendations and helping to give greater certainty to parties about the costs they may face if they are heading towards legal action.
We also know that giving light to what’s happening in workplaces will help to make a difference. That’s why this bill will require the Commonwealth public sector to report against six gender equality indicators, contributing to what will become a growing body of data that will help to improve our understanding of gender inequality in workplaces.
I do want to take this opportunity to thank the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, and acknowledge her work both with the Respect@Work report and with the report that she did for this parliament. They are both incredibly important pieces of work that really are helping us get to a different place in this country—helping us make sure that our workplaces are the types of workplaces that everyone would want to work in and can feel safe working in. Again, I pay tribute to the effort and thought that she has brought into these important reforms.
I also want to acknowledge the input and advocacy, over many, many years, from individuals and organisations who’ve kept up the pressure and the attention on these issues. I know that their contribution has been reflected first in the commissioner’s report and in the findings and the recommendations—and it has now been reflected in everything that has come since, including in this bill.
Sexual harassment can be devastating for those people who experience it. It is something that we know can occur in any industry and any profession, but it just should not occur. That it continues to be a pervasive issue in workplaces demonstrates the need for those of us who are here as lawmakers to rethink all of these things—to look at how these laws are working more effectively to help stop sexual harassment in workplaces. This bill represents part of the shift we need to make, and it follows the leadership of the Respect@Work report. This bill tells workers across Australia that they deserve to be safe at work. It tells workers across a workplace that sexual harassment should not be put up with or ignored. It is preventable, and we can make a change for the better that helps to put it to an end.
This bill is a really important step forward. With its passage through the parliament, soon we will finally have implemented the recommendations of the Respect@Work report in full—alongside, of course, the bill introduced by Minister Burke this morning in the House. That bill, again, goes to some important issues around addressing gender inequality in our workplaces. It’s such important work that this parliament and this government are getting on with doing. This bill demonstrates that our government is delivering the changes that people voted for. We are delivering on the promise we made to Australian women that their voices would be heard in this place and that the changes needed in our workplaces, in our homes and across our country would be acted on. I’m very proud that this government has brought this bill forward and I commend it to the House.