National inquiry into workplace sexual harassment a welcome opportunity for reform

20 June 2018
Jade Thompson

Lawyers have today welcomed the announcement of a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, saying the inquiry presented an important opportunity for reform, including addressing gender inequality within workplaces.

Maurice Blackburn National Head of Employment Law Josh Bornstein said sexual harassment remained a scourge in many Australian workplaces, with increasing numbers of people continuing to come forward with complaints in the wake of the #metoo movement.

“The announcement today of a national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is welcome, such an inquiry is long overdue to look at the full extent of sexual harassment within workplaces and what can be done to deliver meaningful reform,” Mr Bornstein said.

“The #metoo campaign has shone a much needed spotlight on the entrenched issue of workplace sexual harassment and has given both women and men a voice to come forward with complaints, something we continue to see in increasing numbers.

“In particular this inquiry presents an important opportunity to also look at the full extent and the true cost of gender inequality in workplaces.

“In many instances sexual harassment is an output of gender inequality and it must be a part of any national inquiry, noting that a recent Victorian Trades Hall Council report(1) on gendered violence found that 64% of women experienced bullying, harassment or violence in their workplace,” he said.

Mr Bornstein said there were still many barriers to justice for women seeking to make complaints about sexual harassment that the inquiry must also address.

“There are a number of reforms needed to improve access to justice for women who have experienced sexual harassment, both within the legal framework and in workplaces,” Mr Bornstein said.

“One issue that must be considered is something that sits squarely with the AHRC, and that is the need to abolish time limits for people making sexual harassment complaints to the Commission.

“Currently the AHRC can terminate a sexual harassment complaint if it is made more than six months after the harassment has occurred - this doesn’t occur in every instance, but the reality is that the older a claim is the less likely it is to be accepted and dealt with.

“As the #metoo movement has clearly shown it can often take victims considerable time to come forward with a complaint, and in our view a six month time limit to make a sexual harassment complaint to the AHRC is inadequate and should be addressed.

“We would also urge the AHRC to look at imposing a positive obligation on employers to take reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment of or by their employees.

“At the moment the reasonable steps test typically only comes into play when employers are defending sexual harassment matters rather than in making sure they are meeting their obligations to prevent sexual harassment at work in the first place.

“Company reporting requirements are another area that must be looked at, at present there is no formal obligation or requirement for companies to report externally on sexual harassment complaints or claims, and we think that needs to change – the more transparent a company has to be the more likely they are to act on workplace sexual harassment.

“We’d also urge the AHRC to look at recommending scrapping the current $100,000 cap on damages for sexual harassment matters in NSW.

“That’s out of step with many other jurisdictions and something we think provides a barrier to justice for complainants in NSW,” he said.

For more information about sexual harassment reforms visit: https://www.mauriceblackburn.com.au/time4reform/

(1) Stop Gendered Violence at Work, Victorian Trades Hall Council: https://www.unionwomen.org.au/stop_gv_resources

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