Race law reforms could affect workplace unity

1 May 2014
Proposed changes to Australia's racial discrimination laws could have a negative impact on the unity of diverse workplaces, according to leading employment law firm Maurice Blackburn.

In its submission to the Federal Government's exposure draft of amendments, Maurice Blackburn warns the proposed removal of "vicarious liability", which means employers can be held responsible for their employees' racist behaviour, could prove damaging.

The law firm described vicarious liability as "a cornerstone" of federal discrimination laws in all areas including sex and disability, and said it objects to any reforms that would make it easier for an employer to avoid their responsibilities and expose workers to harm.

"The repeal of s18E removes a powerful incentive for employers to introduce comprehensive policy, procedures, processes and training for dealing with racial hatred in the workplace," the submission said.

"Though this may provide a small short-term boost to the balance sheets of some companies, the potential deleterious impacts to productivity and cohesiveness in diverse workplaces could prove substantial."

Maurice Blackburn's submission also highlights the impact of the proposed new exemptions provision, which would exclude any political, social, cultural, religious, artistic, academic or scientific matter.

"On its face, this wording captures nearly every conceivable topic a human being could possibly communicate on," the law firm said.  "The carve-outs are so broad as to render the new provisions concerning vilification and intimidation entirely toothless."

Maurice Blackburn principal Giri Sivaraman said the current laws successfully balanced the need for free and fair expression and the rights of individuals not to be abused or vilified on the basis of their race.

"The reforms proposed by the Federal Government would transform our nation's racial discrimination laws into a toothless tiger, and remove the power of victims exposed to public displays of bigotry and hatred to seek legal redress," he said.

"As a law firm that champions the rights of minorities and the value of diversity, our submission calls on the Government to abandon the proposed changes to the Racial Discrimination Act."

For the full submission click here.

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