EMPLOYERS HAVE been reminded of the need to strive for discrimination and harassment-free workplaces following reports of an increase in employment related complaints in the post-WorkChoices industrial landscape.
According to Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) President John von Doussa, there has been a 63 per cent increase in employment related complaints, which von Doussa claimed to be the result of the introduction of WorkChoices.
“An increase in employment related complaints to HREOC since the introduction of the Australian Government’s new WorkChoices legislation sounds a timely reminder to all businesses, regardless of their size, that they must still adhere to federal and state equal opportunity laws,” he said.
In April to June 2005, HREOC received 170 complaints related to employment including 26 where the complainant had been dismissed. In the same period of 2006, the number of complaints had risen to 278 complaints relating to employment including 126 where the complainant had been dismissed.
Both employers and employees were reminded by von Doussa that all staff, including casuals, probationers, contract workers, commission agents and full- and part-time workers, are entitled to make complaints.
In an address to the South Australian Industrial Relations Society, von Doussa claimed that the fundamental restructuring of Australia’s workplace relations system had left the functions of HREOC untouched, proving the Government’s recognition of the importance of protecting people in the workplace from discrimination and unlawful termination.
However, while companies with fewer than 100 employees are now exempt from unfair dismissal laws, all businesses, regardless of their size, must still adhere to federal and state equal opportunity laws, and therefore the workplace relations reforms do have important implications for HREOC, said von Doussa.
“Employment is always the main area of complaint under federal anti-discrimination legislation. Since April 2006 we have seen a significant increase in the number of employment related complaints – most notably under the Disability Discrimination Act and the Racial Discrimination Act.”
Concerns surrounding the impact of the increased focus of individual bargaining on more vulnerable workers were also addressed. “Some of the individual complaints we have received give us cause to be concerned that discriminatory provisions – like bonuses for employees who take no sick or carers leave – are creeping into workplace agreements.”
Further to this, von Doussa said there was evidence that women were less likely to strike strong bargains on pay than men – research that creates real concerns about the future of pay equity.
“The way these issues are addressed will have a major impact on the capacity of Australian workers to balance work and family life.”
Furthermore, the type of complaints that von Doussa claimed the HREOC were investigating in the post-WorkChoices environment suggest that while most employers know that direct discrimination in the workplace is unlawful, the concept of indirect discrimination is not as well understood.
Handling discrimination and harassment in the workplace
To assist employers in the elimination of discrimination and harassment in the workplace, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has developed the following best practice checklist:
Induction for new employees to provide them with information about the organisation
Good appraisal systems that meet the needs of the employer and employees
Promotional opportunities for all staff members
Different types of staff development and training
Implementing positive work environment policies, such as flexible work arrangements
Accessible grievance procedures