Morrison fails women (again): We have a right to feel safe

Women's march for justice in Brisbane. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

Two events this week have made me angry.

The first was Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s decision that his government would not adopt the full recommendations of the Sex Discrimination Commissioner’s report into sexual harassment in the workplace. The second was his opening address to the National Women’s Safety Summit on September 6.

Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins found sexual harassment in workplaces to be “endemic” and estimated the cost to the economy at $3.5 billion a year. Her Respect@Work: National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces report had been handed to MPs in 2019.

The report documented the long-term health and wellbeing implications for people — mainly women — who experience harassment. It made 12 recommendations, but the federal government has agreed to only half of those in its new Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill 2021, which became law last week.

The new law prohibits the harassment of any person on the basis of sex.

Instead of six months, employees will now have 24 months to file a sexual harassment complaint with the Australian Human Rights Commission.

The law now recognises that sexual harassment is a health and safety issue in the workplace, like bullying. This means that victims can apply for an “order to stop sexual harassment” through the Fair Work Commission.

The new law also expands the definition of what constitutes work and who does it, meaning that more workers at risk, as well as people working from home, will be covered.

Jenkins told the ABC’s The Drum that employers were trying to prove that someone was not at work when they were being harassed. “We now have a better understanding that work is largely done when work is done, anytime and anywhere.”

Brittany Higgins’s allegations about being raped in the federal parliament building in the lead-up to the federal election in 2019 led to mass protests the following year by women demanding "Enough is enough".

Women experience sexual harassment and sexual violence, and are dying at a rate of one to two every week from violence perpetrated by a current or ex-partner. The rate of violence and sexual assault is much higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and children than for non-Indigenous women.

The pandemic lockdowns — without enough financial support — mean that women, who are more likely to have only causal work, are the worst affected by job losses. The choices for those in abusive relationships are extremely limited.

In addition, women who do report their sexual assaults are often traumatised all over again by the criminal justice system.

Despite this, community expectations about how sexual harassment and sex discrimination must be dealt with are changing rapidly.

This adds to the pressure on Morrison, who said in April: “It is not only immoral and despicable and even criminal, but it also denies Australians, especially women, their personal security and their economic security by not being safe at work.”

However, the new law leaves out several key recommendations from Jenkin’s report. They are recommendations 17, 18 and 19 to amend the Sex Discrimination Act to include a positive duty on employers to take reasonable measures to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment, and victimisation, supported by appropriate enforcement and inquiry powers, and recommendation 28 to amend the Fair Work Act to expressly prohibit sexual harassment, and introduce a new quick and easy complaints process.

The government also decided not to use the opportunity to include 10 days' paid family and domestic violence leave in the Fair Work Act, which would support women escaping violent relationships.

In an act of sheer gall, Morrison used his opening address to the National Women’s Safety Summit on September 6 to mouth more platitudes about the “unacceptable” level of violence against women in homes, workplaces and communities.

We need to stay angry and focused on what we need: the right to have a safe home, a safe workplace and safe communities with practical, available and fully supported services for people experiencing or fleeing violence.

We also need a justice system that recognises and responds quickly to victim/survivors of sexual violence, delivers results and does not retraumatise them.

[Zeta Henderson is a health-care worker and a member of the Geelong Women Unionist Network (GWUN). She is Vice-President of Geelong Trades Hall. Register for a September 14 online forum “Justice for Women in Rape Cases” hosted by GWUN and March4Justice Geelong, which will hear from the Victorian Law Reform Commission and the Centre for Innovative Justice and Victims of Crime.]