Victoria Legal Aid

Change the culture, change the system – end sexual harassment at work

Important steps have been taken to recognise the harm caused by sexual harassment and improve protections for workers, but there is more to do.

Everyone deserves to go to work free from sexual harassment #power2prevent

Sexual harassment is an unacceptably common feature of Australian workplaces.

According to the latest statisticsExternal Link , one in three people have been sexually harassed at work within the past five years.

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 Respect@Work ReportExternal Link , 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.

Read more about the passing of the Anti-Discrimination and Human Rights Legislation Amendment (Respect at Work) Bill 2022.

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.

Read about our expanded sexual harassment law services in 2023.

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 the introduction an equal access modelExternal Link - 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.

In the short-term, we support the call for a review of the costs issue, as recommendedExternal Link by the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee.

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.

More information

For more information about our work, please contact our Equality Law Program Manager Melanie Schleiger at Melanie.Schleiger@vla.vic.gov.au or by calling the Equality Law team on (03) 9269 0416.

Learn more about sexual harassment and what you can do about it.

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.

We help Victorians with their legal problems and represent those who need it most. Find legal answers, chat with us online, or call us. You can speak to us in English or ask for an interpreter. You can also find more legal information at www.legalaid.vic.gov.au

Reviewed 04 January 2023

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