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Discrimination and harassment in the workplace

Everyone has a right to a discrimination-free workplace. In Australia, a fundamental obligation of all employers, and one that can be enforced legally, is the requirement to create a workplace that is free from discrimination and harassment. These responsibilities are set out in a range of State and Commonwealth laws which help protect people from behaviour that breaches their rights. Other democracies have similar legislation that is designed to protect the democracy of workers.

For many years, discrimination in the workplace was widespread. In the late 1970s, laws were passed that aimed to end discrimination such as the unfair treatment of women in the workplace and the discrimination against employees on the basis of age, race, sex, religious beliefs, disabilities, sexual orientation or marital status. This legislation has been amended regularly to keep it up to date with the values of society.

Types of workplace discrimination

There are different types of workplace discrimination. Public policy, in recent times, has supported the idea of a workplace free of discrimination (based on race, gender, marital status, age, disabilities, religious beliefs, sexual preference, and cultural and ethnic background). There also exists minimum statutory legislation protecting employees from being unfairly dismissed (sacked) from their employment. Unfair dismissal refers to minimum legal protection for workers against 'unfair, unjust or unreasonable' termination of employment.

Types of workplace discrimination occur in such areas as:

  • recruiting and hiring staff;
  • the terms, conditions and benefits offered as part of employment arrangements;
  • who receives training and what sort of training is offered;
  • who is considered and selected for transfer, promotion, redundancy or dismissal.

Harassment

Harassment is defined as unwelcome or unreciprocated behaviour which makes an employee or customer feel intimidated, offended, or belittled in the workplace. Harassment can take place between co-workers; between managers, supervisors and employees; or employees or managers and other people in a workplace, such as clients, customers or students. Harassment can occur in any location where people work, including outside the usual place of work, such as at a client's office or in a customer's home.

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Unfair dismissal

In the course of our working lives, we are generally protected from unfair or discriminatory termination of employment (unfair dismissal). Not all employees are covered for unfair dismissal under Commonwealth legislation. In Queensland, the Industrial Relations Act 1999 (the Act) deals with employment relations for workers not covered by federal legislation. In particular, the Act details procedures for claiming unfair dismissal in the Industrial Relations Commission.

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Anti-discrimination legislation in the workplace

Anti-discrimination legislation exists to prevent the most serious forms of workplace harassment based on such things as race, gender, cultural background, disabilities and sexual preference. These laws are designed to allow individuals an equal opportunity to compete for jobs, and to receive equal and fair treatment when in employment.

Although discrimination in the workplace still occurs, there is now widespread support for anti-discrimination measures in Australia. Many workplaces have internal policies and procedures for preventing all forms of discrimination. These policies are designed to ensure that the employer is not able to be held liable for the conduct of employees.

Trade unions

There is a long history of trade and industrial unionism in Australia. Trade unions have been strongly influential in making the workplace more democratic. Ideas such as minimum wage, maximum working hours and equality in the workplace have been campaigned for by trade unions.

While unions have, in the past, been very powerful and able to firmly influence employers and politicians, in recent years they have been less powerful and influential. In general however, the objectives and activities of trade unions still include:

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  • Provision of benefits to members, which can involve the provision of professional training, legal advice, and representation;
  • Collective bargaining, where the unions negotiate with employers over wages and working conditions;
  • Political activity, in lobbying governments and organising campaigns;
  • Industrial action: Trade unions may organise strikes or other actions in order to achieve particular goals.

The future of trade unionism

The last part of the 20th century saw the proportion of employees belonging to a union fall from 51 percent in 1976 to around 23 percent in 2005.

A decline in the membership of trade unions is not unique to Australia. Throughout the developed world, trade union membership has been in decline for some time. What the future holds for trade unions is unclear, though as the workplace continues to change, there will still be a need for employees to be protected.


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