What’s Been Happening in Australia in Relation to Sexual Harassment, Discrimination and Bullying from 30 March 2020 – 5 April 2020

Australian Human Rights Commission Releases Respect@Work Report

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has recently released the Respect@Work report – an analysis of sexual harassment in the workplace. Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, remarking on the report’s findings, said it was ‘deeply disappointing’ Australia still had major changes to make. Special counsel for Shine Lawyers, Samantha Mangwana spoke to Lawyers Weekly about the Respect@Work report. She said that public reports, such as this one, transform the way workplaces handle sexual harassment complaints. ‘The timing of this report is so interesting. It came just around International Women’s Day, sandwiched right between the days of Mr Weinstein’s conviction and then his sentencing of 23 years in prison,’ Ms Mangwana said. ‘That is something that, only a few years ago, would have been considered absolutely impossible.’ The AHRC report made several recommendations which aim to change how the justice system responds to sexual harassment. One recommendation includes extending the sexual harassment complaints period from six to twenty-four months. The AHRC also recommended the development of a practice note or guideline for the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs). Ms Mangwana warned that NDAs have halted the #MeToo movement. ‘Unless there’s transparency and an understanding of the issues, there won’t really be change,’ Ms Mangwana said.

Increase in COVID-19 Related Racial Discrimination Complaints in Australia

The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has encouraged Australians to ‘show kindness and support’ amid an increase in COVID-19 related racial discrimination complaints. The AHRC reported that approximately one in four racial discrimination complaints lodged in the past two months were COVID-19 related. Last month, the Commission also recorded the highest number of racial discrimination complaints of the 2019-20 financial year. International student Christine Zheng was one complainant affected by this growing trend. Zheng was verbally abused while waiting at a tram stop in Melbourne. She told the ABC she was yelled at by a stranger, who shouted ‘coronavirus’ at her. ‘I was the only person wearing the mask … I could feel it was malicious,’ she said. Race Discrimination Commissioner Chin Tan said that COVID-19-related discrimination against people of Asian backgrounds must be condemned. ‘Coronavirus has nothing to do with race or nationality — and neither fear of the virus, nor frustration at the difficulties we all face, are excuses for discrimination,’ Commissioner Tan said. ‘People of all backgrounds are dealing with this crisis. No group can be singled out, and we must all work collectively to defeat it,’ he said. Michael Thai, a University of Queensland lecturer in psychology, added that pandemic-related racism was negatively affecting the wellbeing and functioning of people in the Asian-Australian community. These communities ‘are experiencing a compounded level of stress, from both the stress that everyone else is feeling with regard to the coronavirus, as well as the additional stress of being racially victimised, being accused of being carriers of the coronavirus and bringing this virus to our shores,’ he said. In light of these concerns, Prime Minister Scott Morrison took the opportunity during a press conference last week to praise the Chinese community’s resilience and leadership. ‘The Chinese-Australian community did an amazing job in those early days of the spread of the coronavirus,’ Prime Minister Morrison said. ‘They have been an early example to the rest of the country as the broader implications are now being experienced and the measures that have been taken,’ he added.

Covid-19 Implications for Employers

Law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, in its series on COVID-19, advised that anti-discrimination laws impose obligations on employers to refrain from discriminating against employees based on of particular attributes. These attributes include race, sex, family or carer’s responsibilities, national extraction and social origin. Corrs Chambers Westgarth also cautioned that employers ‘will need to be on alert and be aware that conduct may be unlawful even if it arises from a genuinely held fear about the COVID-19 virus.’ Directions to employees, such as to not attend work, cannot be made on the basis of race or ethnicity and are likely to be unlawful. Instead, Corrs reminded employers that decisions and direction need to be based on appropriate and reasonable grounds.