Commissioner calls for tougher laws on bosses to prevent sex harassment

Australia’s sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins has urged the Morrison government to force bosses to prevent harassment at work.

Jul 19, 2021, updated Jul 19, 2021
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has been behind a new code of conduct in Canberra. (file image).

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins has been behind a new code of conduct in Canberra. (file image).

Jenkins’ landmark Respect at Work report made 55 recommendations when it was released early last year.

While most of the proposals have been included in legislation before parliament, she used a parliamentary hearing into the bill to call for other key areas to be added.

Her report called for a “positive duty” for employers to ensure measures are in place to prevent sexual discrimination and harassment, similar to workplace safety laws.

“It is shocking to realise that the only law that currently explicitly prohibits sexual harassment – the Sexual Discrimination Act – contains no obligation for employers to prevent sexual harassment,” Jenkins said.

The commissioner said the overall response from government, business, unions and other stakeholders was heartening.

“With such widespread commitment and action, I hope history will record 2021 as the turning point in eradicating sexual harassment in our workplaces,” Jenkins said.

Julie Fox, assistant national secretary at retail workers’ union the SDA, said employees had been forced to wear clothing with “I’m free” and other inappropriate slogans.

“The employer at the time didn’t put the two and two together but the overwhelming response to workers at that time was unbelievable levels of sexual harassment occurred,” she said.

“We’ve had other employers in the past that required employees to wear t-shirts and badges that say ‘I love sex’.”

Business groups including the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the Australian Industry Group have resisted calls for employers to be legally obliged to prevent harassment.

They argue sexual harassment is banned under existing rules and fear duplication could lead employers to be exposed to multiple penalties for the same incident.

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Jenkins also wants the Fair Work Commission to be given powers to issue a stop sexual harassment order and make it easier for victims to pursue civil cases.

Released a progress report ion her investigation into the workplace culture inside Parliament House, Jenkins revealed she had so far been contacted by 345 participants, almost three-quarters of them women.

Sixteen current or former federal parliamentarians have come forward to share their stories, along with eight volunteers, interns or students.

The commission had conducted 222 interviews and booked a further 125, while an online survey and focus group meetings would also take place.

Submissions close at the end of July and focus groups will finish in early August.

Jenkins is expected to provide her final report to the government in November.

Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews challenged all federal politicians to undertake optional sexual harassment training.

“That will be a pretty clear demonstration of their commitment, and they should be held to that,” she said.

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