Australians have long been protected from bullying and harassment at work, with laws against both racial and sexual discrimination having been in place for decades.
Yet new legislation introduced by the Albanese Government last month are set to go further to protect working Australians, with the “Respect at Work” bill currently going through Parliament.
If we have legislation to protect workers already in place, it’s a reasonable question to ask why we need more, and what are the changes likely to mean for everyday Australians?
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Here are three things that are about to change, and what they mean for you.
1. Emphasis will be on your employer
“The headline change is that, once the Bill is passed, employers will have an express positive duty to take reasonable and proportionate actions to eliminate sex discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation,” Tobin said.
Tobin’s company recently authored a white paper on the proposed changes, which are set to shift the burden of responsibility onto the employer rather than the employee.
This key change will mean that if an employee feels discrimination of any type is taking place at work, their employer must take positive steps to rectify it.
“A passive approach is no longer acceptable, giving employees concerned about these issues additional currency to seek change – if change is required – in their organisations,” Tobin said.
To make sure this happens, this will be enforced by the Australian Human Rights Commission, which will have new powers to ensure companies comply – another key part of the legislation.
2. Time extended to lodge a complaint
Another key change will be the length of time an employee has to make a formal complaint about any discrimination in their workplace.
“The time for making a complaint of unlawful discrimination in the federal system will be a universal 24 months (up from six months) after relevant events occur. This is already the default limitation period applicable to complaints alleging unlawful sex discrimination,” Tobin said.
Bringing the new legislation in line with the sex discrimination laws seems a logical step, but it’s also important for another reason.
Often victims are traumatised by issues of discrimination, and many may miss the six-month window to start proceedings due to not build up the courage to act until it’s too late. This new law will seek to change that.
3. “Cost Neutrality’ will be introduced
One factor that often dissuades employees from making a complaint on discrimination grounds – or any complaint for that matter – is the potential legal costs involved.
The Respect at Work bill seeks to address this by introducing a ‘cost neutrality’ clause into the legislation.
“In practice this will mean that persons wishing to prosecute complaints will have less exposure to the prospect for an adverse costs outcome,” Tobin said.
What that means for Aussie workers is that, if they choose to complain about being discriminated against and their employee fights this in court, the potential cost of this process will be reduced for the complainant if their claim is rejected.
While the proposed new laws won’t mean the process is cost free for employees – they will still need to pay for their own legal costs if it goes that far – at least they will be spared having to pay their employer’s legal cost is their claim is unsuccessful.
When can we expect the changes?
Although the Respect for Work bill was introduced last month, it isn’t law yet, as the legislation is still going through Parliament.
So, when should Aussie workers expect these changes to be introduced?
“It is difficult to accurately predict the time in which the reforms proposed by the Bill will become law. At this stage our best guess is that the latest proposals will result in new laws to take effect in early to mid-2023,” Tobin said.
As with any changes to legislation, these things take time, with elected politicians required to debate these before they are enacted into law.
However, there seems to be (at the time of writing) relatively good support for the Respect at Work bill across both major parties, so expect to see this legislation come into effect next year.
Once it does, the changes will make it far easier for employees to call-out discriminatory behaviour in their workplaces, which will hopefully lead to a more inclusive working environment for everyone.
Mark the calendar, as 2023 is set to be the year Australian workplaces change forever, and for the better.