Sexual harassment is an unacceptably common feature of Australian workplaces.
Our clients tell us that the system has not been set up to prevent sexual harassment, or to address it meaningfully when it happens.
For more than a decade, our Equality Law program has provided advice and representation for workers impacted by sexual harassment and fought for long-term reform to make workplaces safer.
Stronger laws to protect workers
Recent changes to the law are a major step forward.
For the first time, employers have a positive duty to prevent sexual harassment, meaning they must take reasonable and proportionate measures to eliminate discriminatory conduct from the workplace.
A recommendation from the , this represents a significant shift in the way we view and deal with sexual harassment at work – from a complaints-based model to one where the employers must continuously evaluate and act to ensure they are meeting their responsibilities.
Rightly, it means the burden of addressing sexual harassment is no longer sits with victim-survivors.
Given that evidence shows that the primary driver of sexual harassment is gender inequality,a positive duty will likely lead to a greater focus on achieving substantive equality at work.
The legislative changes also give the Australian Human Rights Commission greater powers to monitor for compliance and investigate issues of systemic unlawful discrimination.
Individual workers will also be able to more easily make complaints by authorising a representative body to act on their behalf in applications to the federal courts.
The Bill implemented all outstanding legislative recommendations of the Respect@Work report, along with additional funding for legal services to support workers experiencing sexual harassment.
Continuing the journey of reform
There is still more that can be done to make workplaces safer.
For instance, we don't want to see complainants deterred from taking legal action because of the cost.
We have long recommended - similar to the approach taken in whistleblower laws - where there are no adverse costs orders if complainants lose their claim, unless it is deemed frivolous, vexatious or without foundation.
The Power to Prevent coalition
Throughout the reform journey, we have been coordinating a coalition of stakeholders in the legal, health, community, family violence and union sectors from around Australia to advocate for change.
The coalition was a strong voice among many calling for full implementation of the Respect@Work recommendations.
Together, we will continue to monitor the impact of legislative changes and assess the need for further reforms.
Disclaimer: The material in this print-out relates to the law as it applies in the state of Victoria. It is intended as a general guide only. Readers should not act on the basis of any material in this print-out without getting legal advice about their own particular situations. Victoria Legal Aid disclaims any liability howsoever caused to any person in respect of any action taken in reliance on the contents of the publication.
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Reviewed 04 January 2023