Can the Australian government really outlaw sexual harassment at work?

New legislation being introduced in Australia is hoping to protect workers from sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Workplace sexual harassment was estimated to cost the Australian economy approximately $3.5 billion in 2018. Lost productivity is a huge component of the economic cost, taking a financial toll on employers and business owners.  

A recent university study found that more than 60 per cent of hospitality workers surveyed in late 2021 and early 2022 experienced sexual harassment, verbal and psychological bullying or racial abuse, while more than 70 per cent of employees witnessed these behaviours. 

An amendment to the 2009 Fair Work Act to protect workers by prohibiting sexual harassment comes into effect from this week, one day before International Women’s Day. 

The new legal parameters will enable a person experiencing sexual harassment to seek compensation and penalties through Fair Work Commission. 

The amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act will include a positive duty on employers to take reasonable and proportionate steps to eliminate sexual harassment, sex discrimination and victimisation, such as issuing compliance notices and entering enforceable undertakings.

Workplace relations specialists Employsure say the informal nature of small business can increase the risk of sexual harassment. Small businesses can also lack the manpower and knowledge to handle sexual harassment complaints. 

“Sexual harassment has often been dismissed as a female problem. It’s a societal and cultural problem. Workplace sexual harassment is a massive risk and shouldn’t be taken lightly,” health and safety manager, Jane Preskett says. 

She recommends a sexual harassment policy and a zero tolerance approach for all businesses, which can act as a prevention tool and protect employees in case of an accusation of sexual harassment.