NIKITA BYRNES | NEWS
In March 2020, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, authored the infamous “Respect@Work” report, a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, the inquiry itself performed by the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Jenkins’ foreword to the report begins by discussing how “Australia was once at the forefront of tackling sexual harassment globally,” and citing the key social and legislative reforms that occurred in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. “However,” she writes, “over 35 years on… Australia now lags behind other countries in preventing and responding to sexual harassment.”
The report is overwhelmingly holistic in the issues it considers. It discusses the prevalence of sexual harassment – particularly towards women – in the workplace, the nature of the harassment, cultural and systemic drivers of the harassment, and other socio-political, cultural, and historical factors. The report is 932 pages long, and includes data collected from interviews and dedicated studies. Overall, the report, which has been hailed as a “landmark,” provided 55 recommendations for legislative change.
The Morrison government did not respond to the report for over a year. After the media headlines condemning Morrison’s reaction to the story of Brittany Higgins – a former government worker who spoke out about her sexual assault by a high-level parliamentarian – the government finally decided to act. After much anticipation, in early September the federal government passed the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Act 2021 (Cth) (Amendment Act). It adopts 6 of the 55 recommendations made by the “Respect@Work” report.
Not only does it lag in the sheer number of recommendations it ignores, the Amendment Act also actively ignores one of the primary recommendations made by the report, arguing for a “positive duty” on employers to take proportionate steps to eliminate sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace in order to promote equality.
The federal government was hesitant to enact the positive duty into legislation, because it argues it already exists in current workplace health and safety laws; the report argues otherwise. This lack of movement has clearly been criticised, Senior Lecturer in Human Resource Management at UNSW Sue Williamson writing in The Conversation that this legislation “does not go far enough.”
Jenkins’ foreword states: “Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue: it is a societal issue, which every Australian, and every Australian workplace, can contribute to addressing.” Many are asking why the government does not seem to agree.