New sexual harassment measures

Workplace laws in Australia will look a little different from Tuesday, as one public agency is given new investigative powers.
Workplace laws in Australia

From today, workplaces could be investigated if they fail to implement measures to prevent sexual harassment.

This means employers will be responsible for implementing a ‘proactive’ approach to prevent harassment from occurring in the workplace, rather than a ‘reactive’ response after an incident occurs.

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has been granted new powers to ensure businesses comply with their legal duty.

Workplace laws in Australia

Proactive sexual harassment prevention measures were included in anti-discrimination laws that passed Federal Parliament last year.

The legislation gave the AHRC powers to investigate alleged breaches of the new laws.

Other support measures, including provisions to strengthen workplace bargaining and gender equality, were also passed last year.

Proactive measures

The laws include a requirement for employers to implement a ‘positive duty’ that works to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. This extends to the ‘victimisation’ of people who make a discrimination complaint.

While the laws do not set out specific proactive measures, positive duties could include education and training programs to improve employee awareness of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment

A 2018 AHRC survey found a third of respondents had experienced sexual harassment at work in the last five years. Harassment rates were higher among women and young people.

A national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment in 2020 called the issue “prevalent and pervasive”.

“[Sexual harassment] occurs in every industry, in every location and at every level, in Australian workplaces,” the inquiry stated.

The inquiry’s final ‘Respect@Work’ report found that Australians were “suffering the financial, social, emotional, physical and psychological harm associated with sexual harassment. This is particularly so for women”.

It recommended laws to ensure employers across Australia improve measures to prevent sexual harassment and create “safer, more respectful and productive Australian workplaces”.

AHRC powers

The Government implemented the inquiry’s recommendation to give the AHRC powers to ensure employers are fulfilling their positive duty obligations. This power comes into effect today.

The AHRC can also address unlawful discrimination without an individual needing to make a complaint.

The AHRC will need reasonable suspicion of a legal breach to investigate a business. This could come from individual complaints or media reporting.

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