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Where there’s a will, there’s a way: regulators and collaboration

10 April 2022

News and media


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This guest editorial was written for the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of practice monthly newsletter, highlighting new additions to the  Regulation Policy and Practice collection on APO. The RP&P collection brings together a range of practical resources from national, local and state/territory governments, regulatory agencies and external institutions conducting monitoring, inquiries and reviews. You can receive this newsletter by  joining the ANZSOG/National Regulators Community of Practice (membership is free) or  subscribe to the newsletter directly.

By Kate Jenkins, Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Australian Human Rights Commission

It was a great privilege recently to speak at the launch of the South Australian chapter of the National Regulators Community of Practice (NRCoP) in Adelaide. Adelaide is one of my favourite cities with some of my favourite people, and due to COVID it’s been a while since I’ve been able to visit, and a long time since I’ve been in a conference room with others anywhere. I was pleased to speak to an audience of passionate regulators about workplace sexual harassment and the importance of new approaches to regulation in the areas of prevention and response.

The statistics speak for themselves. Sexual harassment is unfortunately a common experience occurring in all workplaces in Australia. The Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2018 sexual harassment survey found that 39 per cent of women and 26 per cent of men have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous five years. In addition to the devastating impact on victims, sexual harassment has a high economic cost for Australia.

The Australian Human Rights Commission’s Respect@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (Respect@Work Report) in 2020 made 55 recommendations to improve the prevention of and response to sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. The Respect@Work Report proposed a new approach for government, employers and the community to better prevent and respond to sexual harassment in the workplace. The key areas of focus underpinning this new approach include further data and research, primary prevention initiatives, a more coordinated and effective legal and regulatory framework, better workplace prevention and response, and better support, advice and advocacy.

The three main legislative schemes that regulate sexual harassment in the workplace are the anti-discrimination laws, the Fair Work system and work, health and safety laws. These three schemes incorporate Federal, state and territory legislation, which involve multiple agencies. There are various discrepancies between jurisdictions and Respect@Work found that the interaction between the schemes is confusing and complex for victims and employers.

The new regulatory model recommended by Respect@Work maximises and improves the existing legislative framework, recognising the right of workers to be free from sexual harassment is a human right, a workplace right and a safety right. Most importantly, Respect@Work made a recommendation for the establishment of the Respect@Work Council as a mechanism to improve co-ordination, consistency and clarity of the laws and for regulators to act in a complementary and reinforcing manner

The Council commenced operation in March 2021, creating a forum for active collaboration across regulatory bodies, from state anti-discrimination and human rights commissions, federal Fair Work Commission and Fair Work Ombusdman, and work health and safety, workers’ compensation agencies and the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. The Council is supported by associate members representing worker and employer organisations who provide a useful user perspective of the sexual harassment system.

I am the Chair of the Respect@Work Council. I will admit that chairing an entity which brings together almost 30 regulators across the Federal, State and Territory jurisdictions was a daunting task at first, but in practice it has been a delight and demonstration of the good will across agencies to address our nation’s epidemic of sexual harassment in workplaces. Our recently published Annual Report shows just how much has been achieved by the Council in its first year of operation, supported by a secretariat housed in the Attorney General’s department.

The Council meets regularly and has provided advice to government on legislative reforms including amendments to the Fair Work Act and ‘stop sexual harassment orders’. Drawing on its diverse experience, the Council has also provided guidance to the Australian Human Rights Commission and other agencies on the implementation of data collection and research, and education and training resources. The Council’s significant progress on reform implementation over the last 12 months has demonstrated the effectiveness of diverse regulators and industry bodies working together to effect change.

However there can be challenges faced in the process of collaboration and undertaking new approaches.

For example, Respect@Work identified a number of critical gaps in data on workplace sexual harassment. It recommended that agencies should engage in formal information sharing and collect consistent data sets to contribute to a coordinated system of annual reporting on workplace sexual harassment metrics. However, data collection and systems for recording sexual harassment complaints vary widely between jurisdictions and are guided by different legislation. There are many practical obstacles to this information sharing, such as technological barriers, different data collection systems, privacy legislation, jurisdictional differences and resistance to change. Despite these difficulties, the regulators have the will to implement this change and are working on finding new approaches and solutions. The benefits of this collaboration will be impactful.

Sexual harassment is a whole-of-society issue, which requires ongoing effort across the community, including all Australian governments, regulators and workplaces. It has been vital to have workplace, safety and human rights regulators and industry bodies involved on the ground in implementing the recommendations from Respect@Work.

Where regulators have the will, we can find a way to work together to achieve effective outcomes.

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