Employers will be legally required to report incidents of sexual harassment to a regulatory body under new plans to reform workplace culture announced by the Victorian state government in Australia.
According to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), one in three workers have been sexually harassed at work in the past five years. However, only 17% of victims made a formal report or complaint about the harassment.
Victoria’s Labor Government has now launched a ministerial taskforce to consider ways to strengthen the state’s occupational health and safety framework, clarify employer obligations, encourage workers to speak up about abuse, and consider measures to prevent the misuse of non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment matters.
“A workplace that is not free from sexual harassment is an unsafe workplace,” said the state’s acting premier, James Merlino. “Inappropriate and dangerous behaviour must be called out and acted on – and that starts with changing workplace culture.”
Under the new proposals, employers will be mandated to provide Victoria’s health and safety regulator, WorkSafe, with reports of inappropriate behaviour within their organisations.
“A mandatory incident notification scheme will ensure the onus is not just on victims to report, but that employers have clear obligations – and will mean sexual harassment can’t be swept under the carpet,” said Ingrid Stitt, the minister for workplace safety.
In the 2019/20 financial year, WorkSafe logged 34 injury claims involving possible sexual harassment. Moreover, the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) saw a 36% increase in inquiries about workplace sexual harassment last year.
The new plans will see WorkSafe and VEOHRC share information, refer inquiries and complaints, and collaborate on inspections, education, and promotional activities, which the government hopes will lead to a more coordinated response and greater support for workers.
These reforms will help clarify what constitutes workplace sexual harassment and stamp this behaviour out for good
The Victoria taskforce will be co-chaired by Bronwyn Halfpenny MP, parliamentary secretary for workplace safety, and Liberty Sanger, a principal workplace injury lawyer at Maurice Blackburn and chair of the Equal Workplaces Advisory Council.
“These reforms will help clarify what constitutes workplace sexual harassment and stamp this behaviour out for good, so that every Victorian can feel safe at work,” said Halfpenny.
The taskforce will include union, employer, and legal representatives, and will deliver its advice to the state government later this year.
Victoria’s plans were announced amid a storm of sexual harassment complaints centred around Australia’s parliament and federal government.
The latest political scandal follows an investigation by an independent inquiry last summer which found that six former court staffers were sexually harassed by former judge Justice Dyson Heydon AC QC.
An AHRC report into sexual harassment in Australia’s workplace has found the nation’s “current legal and regulatory system is simply no longer fit for purpose” and proposes a new model that is “evidence-based, victim-focused and framed through a gender and intersectional lens”.
In comments reported earlier this week, former prime minister Kevin Rudd said he hoped sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins, who is leading a review of workplace culture in parliament, would also hold inquiries into corporate Australia.