Respect at Work: Government responds to national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment

This month, the government announced it would adopt "wholly, in part, or in principle," the 55 recommendations set out in the Human Right Commission Respect@Work report investigating sexual harassment at work.

In 2019, as part of a National Inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, the Australian Human Rights Commission asked individuals and organisations for their views, experiences and suggestions for change.

Numerous parties, including RLC, Kingsford Legal Centre and Women’s Legal Service NSW made submissions to the Inquiry. The final report, Respect@Work, was released by the Commission in March 2020.

The Respect@Work report aims to provide a new framework for the prevention and reporting of sexual harassment.  It also outlines the context in which sexual harassment occurs and current legal and regulatory systems that can be improved.  

“The current legal and regulatory system is simply no longer fit for purpose,” states Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who was commissioned to conduct the report.  

“In the Inquiry report, I have recommended a new model that improves the coordination, consistency and clarity between the anti-discrimination, employment and work health and safety legislative schemes.”

"Workplace sexual harassment is not inevitable. It is not acceptable. It is preventable,” Jenkins said.

The report found that 1 in 3 people who had worked in the previous 5 years had been sexually harassed. It concludes that the current system for addressing workplace sexual harassment is inadequate, confusing, and puts excessive emphasis on the individual to make a complaint.

This is particularly problematic because many people experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace do not report out of fear that it will impact their work relationships, reputation and career prospects. 

The 55 recommendations made by the report cover many different areas, including the need to improve education around respectful relationships, the introduction of a Workplace Sexual Harassment Council and improved methods of reporting.  

In April, the federal government responded to but did not endorse all 55 of these recommendations. It will introduce legislative changes to Parliament to strengthen protections against sexual harassment in the workplace, and intends to expand the scope of the Sex Discrimination Act to include politicians, judges and state public servants. 

Significantly, changes proposed do not include amendments to the Sex Discrimination Act to put the onus on employers to act, with the Attorney-General Michaelia Cash stating that positive duty for employers already exists under work health and safety laws.

“… we want to reduce complexity… not confuse people as to where to go,” Senator Cash told The Sydney Morning Herald.

There is no express work health and safety obligation on employers to prevent their workers from being sexually harassed. Despite the significant health impacts of sexual harassment, the reality is that harassment is generally not treated as a work health and safety issue.

Commissioner Jenkins welcomed the government’s adoption of the report but said it would be “a missed opportunity” to not include measures to eliminate sexual harassment in the Sex Discrimination Act.  

RLC welcomes steps taken by the government to tackle the problem of sexual harassment in our workplaces and encourages a best practice legal and system wide response. We endorse Kate Jenkin’s sentiments:

“Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue: it is a societal issue, which every Australian, and every Australian workplace, can contribute to addressing.

The executive summary of the Respect@Work report is available here.

Source / further info

Government at risk of missing an opportunity with key sexual harassment changes: Sex Discrimination Commissioner (Katrina Curtis, Sydney Morning Herald 8 April 2021)

Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (Australian Human Rights Commission, March 2020)