The Australian Human Rights Commission has launched a 12-month investigation into workplace sexual harassment, the first of its kind birthed from the growing #MeToo movement.
The national inquiry will involve in-depth examination, consultation and research around sexual harassment at work, and will consider the economic impact, behaviour drivers and current legal framework for sexual harassment claims.
“Importantly, the Inquiry will provide employees, employers and all members of the public with an opportunity to participate in developing a solution to ensure Australian workplaces are safe and respectful for everyone,” AHRC sex discrimination commissioner Kate Jenkins said.
The AHRC is currently conducting its fourth national survey into workplace sexual harassment, with early analysis showing increased levels since the last survey in 2012. The final results are expected to be published in August and will be used to identify the scale and nature of the problem across a number of industries.
The inquiry will examine the current legal framework, including reviewing complaints made to anti-discrimination agencies nationwide, Jenkins said.
“In making our recommendations, we will consider the changing work environment and existing good practice being undertaken by employers to prevent and respond to workplace sexual harassment.”
Maurice Blackburn national head of employment law Josh Bornstein threw his support behind the new inquiry.
“The announcement today of a national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment from the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) is welcome, such an inquiry is long overdue to look at the full extent of sexual harassment within workplaces and what can be done to deliver meaningful reform.”
One area in need of reform is the abolition of the six-month time limit for people making sexual harassment claims to the Commission, according to Bornstein. Although the AHRC doesn’t always terminate claims made outside of this time limit, the older a claim is, the less likely it is to be dealt with, Bornstein said.
“As the #MeToo movement has clearly shown, it can often take victims considerable time to come forward with a complaint, and in our view a six-month time limit to make a sexual harassment complaint to the AHRC is inadequate and should be addressed.”
He also recommended the Commission impose a positive obligation on employers to prevent sexual harassment, implement a company reporting regime for complaints or claims, and scrap the current $100,000 cap on damages for sexual harassment cases in NSW.
“That’s out of step with many other jurisdictions and something we think provides a barrier to justice for complainants in NSW,” he said.
Since the #MeToo movement was kickstarted with the Harvey Weinstein revelations, a number of incidents involving high profile firms within Australia have also been uncovered. Allegations of sexual harassment have led to the suspension of Peter Paradise, a senior partner at Herbert Smith Freehills, Don Manifold, South Australian managing partner at Ernst & Young, and a hitherto unnamed partner at KPMG. Melbourne mayor Robert Doyle has also had to step down due to similar allegations.
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