Stopping sexual harassment is union business

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Sexual harassment remains a serious problem in Australian workplaces. In 2008 the Australian Human Rights Commission conducted a telephone survey, speaking to 2,500 workers aged between 18 and 64. It found that 22% of women and 5% of men have been sexually harassed on the job. The last survey of this type, conducted in 2003, found that 28% of women and 7% of men had experienced such harassment. The most scandalous aspect of the recent findings is that, of those harassed in the last five years, just 16% reported the behaviour or lodged a formal complaint. The comparable figure in the earlier survey was 32%. Among those suffering in silence were many who had no faith in the complaints processes or who felt too powerless to speak up at work.

Enforce the law. It’s now nearly a quarter of a century since laws were passed to make sexual harassment illegal. But as the report, Sexual harassment: Serious business, notes: “sexual harassment remains an unfortunate reality.” Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick is clear about where the responsibility lies. She stresses that sexual harassment “must be taken seriously” and employers should take “appropriate and swift action” whenever it happens. Broderick also calls for all employers to conduct regular training to stamp it out.

Take collective action. Winning the laws that outlaw sexual harassment was an important milestone. But having unions active in every workplace, insisting that employers provide a safe environment, is the missing link. Unions must train delegates and members to recognise sexual harassment, speak up and demand that it be stopped. Checking that each worksite has a policy, a grievance procedure and regular training about how to combat harassment should be on every organiser’s checklist. Confident and assertive workers, well organised by democratic and progressive unions, can get laws enforced and create workplaces that are safe and free of both bullying and sexual harassment. While Elizabeth Broderick did not recommend this, we do!

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