Robust law reform is crucial to ensure respect at work

Robust law reform is crucial to ensure respect at work

Thursday, 8 April 2021

We welcome the Australian Government’s announcement of its commitment to prevent and address workplace sexual harassment but note the response falls short of accepting in full important reforms, which would make women safer at work.

‘Last year after a landmark inquiry that surveyed more than ten thousand people, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner found laws and systems should be changed to prevent sexual harassment occurring and to meaningfully address it when it happens,’ said Melanie Schleiger, Program Manager of Equality Law at Victoria Legal Aid.

The Respect@Work report found that sexual harassment “occurs in every industry, in every location and at every level”. It detailed how we can prevent and better respond to this problem. Today, the Australian Government released A Roadmap for Respect: Preventing and Addressing Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces.

We welcome the Government’s recognition of the need to invest in specialist support and legal services, so women are assisted to report and recover from sexual harassment at work. However, we urge the Government to take a robust and effective approach to law reform by amending the Sex Discrimination Act and the Fair Work Act as recommended in Respect@Work.

Preventative approach is needed

‘A key recommendation that Victoria Legal Aid and other legal and community services support is a more proactive and preventative approach from employers, that lifts the burden from victims of harassment. This includes an enforceable “positive duty” under the Sex Discrimination Act, which requires employers to take proactive steps to prevent sexual harassment,’ said Melanie.

The Government has not yet committed to this change.  

‘An enforceable positive duty under the Sex Discrimination Act is a crucial part of creating safer workplaces and would send a welcome message that sexual harassment is both preventable and everyone’s business,’ said Melanie.

‘It is also crucial that new targeted workplace health and safety regulations create an effective framework that employers across all industries could follow, to prevent and address sexual harassment as a workplace safety issue. We would like to see the Australian Government commit to this recommendation.’

‘Once this strong framework is created, oversight bodies such as Human Rights Commissions need to be given powers and resources to investigate and sanction organisations and industries where sexual harassment and gender inequality are widespread’, Melanie added.

Our clients' experiences of sexual harassment

Over the past five years our specialist discrimination law service has provided over 1000 legal advice sessions about sexual harassment and discrimination. About 80 percent of clients who we assisted with a workplace sexual harassment complaint were women.

‘Our clients’ stories are shockingly similar,’ said Melanie. ‘They show us that current laws are failing to prevent sexual harassment at work. Perpetrators are rarely held accountable and complaints almost never lead to any changes in workplaces, that will prevent future harassment’, she said.

'Solutions to this issue can be complex, but without making significant changes, we know women will continue to experience unacceptably high rates of workplace sexual harassment.  We look forward to seeing the details of the legislative reform and continuing to work collaboratively with organisations and with people directly affected, to make our workplaces safer for everyone,’ said Melanie.

More information

Read what our clients say and their recommendations for change.

We coordinated a coalition of over 100 stakeholders in the legal, health, community, family violence and union sectors to advocate for key reforms. Together the Power to Prevent coalition submitted a joint statement to the AHRC inquiry. Read the statement.

For media inquiries contact Senior Communications Adviser Alma Mistry on 0418 381 327.


Was this helpful?