New workplace laws that provide protection against sexual harassment and measures to make it easier to seek justice are expected to come into effect at the end of 2023.
The legislation was approved by the Senate on Friday and will pass the lower house next week before the House of Representatives enters for the year.
But the laws won’t take effect until a year after royal assent – to give employers time to implement and train their new responsibilities.
The laws will compel employers to take reasonable steps to eliminate sexual discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace and update the legislation’s goal of achieving gender equality in the workplace.
It will also remove the cost barrier for people who have experienced sexual harassment or assault seeking legal help.
The Women’s Legal Center expressed concern about women being afraid to come forward because they would not be believed and would end up paying the other party’s legal fees.
“Fees can be so high that the average person faces financial ruin. It’s no surprise that many women decide not to take this gamble,” said Greens Senator Larissa Waters.
“Cost should not be the determining factor in whether employees are willing to denounce bad behavior and push for a safe workplace.”
Senator Waters said it was clear that the current laws put up all sorts of barriers for people to come forward.
“Cultural attitudes, costs, risks and the genuine fear that they would be targeted by work through further harassment or loss of hours,” he said.
“This bill is a big step toward removing those barriers.”
She said employers’ positive duty to provide a safe workplace would help change culture.
Labor Senator Marielle Smith called the bill a milestone for Australian workers.
Senator Smith spoke of her own anxiety and discomfort while working as a young hospitality worker.
“That fear that keeps you up at night because you don’t want to go to work tomorrow because you know the harassment you’re going to experience,” she said.
She also thanked all the people who shared their own stories to push for change.
“They should be proud.”
Liberal Senator Michaelia Cash said decisive action must be taken against workplace harassment.
“We should never tolerate sexual harassment at work or anywhere else,” she said.
The changes follow the recommendations of the Australian Human Rights Commission’s groundbreaking Respect at Work report.
It found “widespread and ubiquitous” sexual harassment in workplaces across every industry and at all levels of management, particularly for women.
Commissioner for Sexual Discrimination Kate Jenkins made 55 recommendations to address the prevalence of sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the workplace.
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