Workplace sexual harassment legal reforms
Sexual harassment isn’t a new issue – it’s been prevalent in Australian workplaces for decades. It doesn’t only affect celebrities or particular industries. It affects all people – no matter their age, gender, circumstance or place of work.
Maurice Blackburn believes there is a real opportunity to improve the laws in Australia, in order to provide protection and safety in the workplace, and equal access to justice for all. We are calling for reforms that will both reduce the risk of sexual harassment and provide greater assistance to victims.
We believe five key areas of reform are needed:
1. Stronger protections for whistleblowers
For too long whistleblowers in Australia have been punished rather than rewarded for their contribution in exposing wrongdoing or misconduct.
Whistleblowers, including the heroic women coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace, have a vital role to play in a democratic society in ensuring that those in power are held to account.
Unfortunately though, Australia is playing catch-up when it comes to whistleblower protections, most critically in the private sector.
The Federal Parliament is currently considering these protections, and there is an urgent need to ensure stronger protections are in place. This must include the implementation of a reward-based scheme to ensure that disclosures are dealt with in a timely and effective manner and to provide adequate financial compensation. We also need to see greater protections for corporate whistleblowers, that are consistent with those protections offered to whistleblowers in the public sector.
2. Abolishing the time limit for sexual harassment complaints.
Currently, sexual harassment complaints can be terminated (and not dealt with) by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) if they are made more than six months after the harassment occurred. This ignores the reality that, for many victims, it can take years, if not decades, for them to feel able to come forward and report harassment. Victims should be able to access justice at a time they feel they are able to do so – and not within an arbitrary six month timeframe.
3. A legal obligation on employers to take all reasonable steps to prevent sexual harassment.
This would seem an obvious and basic requirement. However, employers currently don’t have a positive obligation to prevent and raise awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace. Actively working to ensure all employees understand what constitutes sexual harassment and how to make a complaint would significantly contribute to reducing the incidence of harassment and ensuring victims understand how to raise issues with their employers.
4. Mandatory reporting of sexual harassment statistics and complaints.
Companies are not required to report externally on sexual harassment complaints or claims and there is inconsistency regarding reporting requirements within companies. In order to effect cultural change from the top Boards need to know if there is sexual harassment going on in the workplace. Company reporting requirements should be expanded, with managers or HR having to disclose sexual harassment complaints to their boards at a minimum, and consideration should be given to implementing a statutory requirement on reporting to a government agency, such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency (WGEA).
5. Removing financial compensation caps on sexual harassment damages.
There is inconsistency between states regarding the amount of compensation that can be awarded to victims of sexual harassment. In the NSW anti-discrimination tribunal (NSW Civil and Administrative Tribunal) the current cap on damages for sexual harassment is $100,000. This cap should be scrapped to bring it in-line with other states, even though most NSW employees are also able to make complaints to the AHRC which has no cap on damages.