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Volunteers Speak Out on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

1 March 2019 at 5:14 pm
Luke Michael
Australian volunteers are feeling unprotected at work because of gaps in the law that leave them vulnerable to sexual harassment, a workplace survey has found.

Luke Michael | 1 March 2019 at 5:14 pm


Volunteers Speak Out on Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
1 March 2019 at 5:14 pm

Australian volunteers are feeling unprotected at work because of gaps in the law that leave them vulnerable to sexual harassment, a workplace survey has found.

Results from Volunteering Australia and Justice Connect’s 2018 survey of 323 volunteers – mostly from the charity and not-for-profit sector – uncovered major safety issues caused by a lack of clear and nationally consistent legal rights for volunteers.

Respondents said there was a belief by some people that volunteering was an opportunistic way to meet women, and noted experiencing incidents ranging from physical sexual harassment, to sexist comments and sexual inferences in general conversation.

“I have not really had a volunteering experience where I felt the level of support was adequate, or what I was owed. I think this type of environment is ripe for sexual harassment,” one respondent said.

Two charities, Volunteering Australia and Justice Connect, are campaigning for stronger, nationally consistent protections for volunteers and unpaid workers facing sexual harassment in the workplace.

While employees are given explicit protection from sexual harassment under equal opportunity laws in all states and territories and the Commonwealth, this is not the case for volunteers.

In some jurisdictions – like Western Australia and Northern Territory – there are no laws to handle sexual harassment of volunteers.

One survey respondent bemoaned that as a woman without paid employment, she could not access the same protections as her employed counterparts.

“It creates a strange duality for the working woman: protected in the context of employment but outside of that realm, she’s fit for harassment,” she said.

Another said: “We are not made to feel as if we can complain because we aren’t getting paid – we’re expected to be fine with any conditions we experience.”

The two charities have made a joint submission to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s National Inquiry into Workplace Sexual Harassment, stating that volunteers and other unpaid workers – such as those completing internships, community service or work-for-the-dole – should be given full legal protection from sexual harassment.

This includes a duty for organisations to take steps to prevent, identify and respond to all forms of sexual harassment.

“Workplace sexual harassment is one of a range of rights-based issues and legal gaps that volunteers experience. This inquiry provides an important opportunity to address the inequities in the law and ensure volunteers are protected from workplace sexual harassment,” Volunteering Australia CEO Adrienne Picone said.

“Volunteers are particularly vulnerable to workplace sexual harassment [but don’t have] a formal avenue to channel complaints… [they] deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.”

Justice Connect CEO Chris Povey added that it was time to fix the legal gaps that put volunteers at risk.

“If you’re paid for your labour, the law can protect you from harm. But some volunteers and unpaid workers are currently falling through the gaps – particularly in NT and WA, where it’s not unlawful to sexually harass a volunteer.” Povey said.

In addition to changing anti-discrimination laws, the submission called for governments to provide education, training and resources around volunteers’ rights.

The charities also want a national service to provide information, emotional support, advice and confidential referrals for volunteers affected by sexual harassment.

The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) has supported the call for greater protection of volunteers in the workplace.

Simone Cusack, VEOHRC head of policy and research, told Pro Bono News volunteers played an essential role in supporting the community and had every right to be protected from sexual harassment in the same way paid employees were.

She said while the overall number of sexual harassment complaints to the commission had increased in the last few years, complaints about sexual harassment from volunteers had not kept pace.

“This tells us that many volunteers may not be aware of their rights or the fact that they can make a complaint about sexual harassment if they experience it,” Cusack said.

“It also points to the importance of organisations that engage volunteers… educating them about how they can make a complaint if they experience sexual harassment.”

Cusack said under Victoria’s Equal Opportunity Act, all organisations with volunteers had a “positive duty” to proactively try and prevent sexual harassment, rather than simply reacting to complaints if they arose.

But as this duty was not enforceable under the act, she urged for this to be changed to hold organisations with volunteers to account and ensure consequences for organisations that did nothing.

“In the long term, an enforceable positive duty would help expose the underlying causes of sexual harassment against volunteers and drive systemic change,” she said.  

“The commission supports broadening protections for volunteers beyond sexual harassment, across the full spectrum of anti-discrimination protections.”

Luke Michael  |  Journalist  |  @luke_michael96

Luke Michael is a journalist at Pro Bono News covering the social sector.

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