Sexual harassment at FIFO sites reflects a broader malaise across the workplace

THE extent to which sexual harassment pervades the FIFO sector has been laid bare by the publication of Report No. 2 of the Western Australian Parliamentary Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in the FIFO mining industry, aptly titled <i>Enough is Enough</i>, and the string of media reports that followed.

Beth Robinson*
 Kingston Reid partner Beth Robinson

Kingston Reid partner Beth Robinson

But to suggest this issue is either new, or unique to the mining industry, is to turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the experiences consistently reported by women in the workplace over many years.

For at least the past decade, there have been a string of high-profile incidents of sexual harassment cases that have played out in the public eye.

In 2010, the then CEO of David Jones was forced to resign following sexual harassment allegations by a junior publicist and a confidential, although reportedly large, legal settlement. At the time, this was considered a watershed moment for the treatment of women in the workplace and a catalyst for change.

2017 saw the rise of the ‘Me Too' movement, giving a public voice to women who had suffered sexual harassment and abuse. Accounts of harassment, abuse and assault were widely published across traditional and social media platforms, seeing a marked increase in the awareness of sexual harassment as a workplace issue and a rise in workplace complaints.

In 2018, Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Kate Jenkins, announced a national inquiry into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces, resulting in the landmark Respect@Work report published in 2020 and a raft of recommendations to address the widespread and pervasive nature of sexual harassment in the workplace. The inquiry found two in every five women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work. This was subsequently supported by the excellent Equality Across the Board report in 2021.

Since the publication of the Respect@Work report, there has been a parade of high-profile sexual harassment scandals suggesting that little has changed: shareholders forced AMP to remove a CEO promoted after being found to have sexually harassed a co-worker; state and federal parliaments have had deeply disturbing cultures of harassment and cover-up exposed; the High Court apologised to six women found to have been sexually harassed by a High Court Judge; Tim Payne (the captain of the Australian Cricket Team) resigned following a sexting scandal, and the then deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, was publicly accused by a high profile National Party member of inappropriate conduct.  

Against this background, the question is: Why are the findings of the Enough is Enough report in any way surprising?

The report exposes the sexist toxicity of the FIFO environment - three out of four women say they have been sexually harassed or assaulted in the past five years. Incidents ranging from abuse to harassment and assault have occurred regularly; it reflected incidents at both peer-to-peer and power imbalance levels. Harassment was physical, verbal, and electronic. Some (mainly) male managers and supervisors behaved appallingly, including seeking sexual favours from women for career advancement or training opportunities.

Harassment was often overlooked or ignored by employers and perpetrators were often not punished, or were moved to other sites, particularly if their work were valued. The simple fact is the industry perpetuated a culture that failed to protect women. The FIFO environment was said to create the perfect storm - poor culture, gender inequality and power imbalances.

Is the behaviour documented in this report horrendous? Absolutely.

Is it surprising? Not at all. Is this conduct unique or endemic to the FIFO and resources industry? No. It may be more pronounced, but the Respect@Work report shows this is a much broader, societal issue.

The real question is whether the Enough is Enough report and its 79 findings and 24 recommendations, coming on the back of the Respect@Work report, will result in change, either within the sector, or more broadly within workplaces.

In this regard, the recommendations arising from the Enough is Enough report bear some scrutiny and analysis, particularly in respect of the proactive, and therefore preventative and protective recommendations, as it is these proactive strategies most likely to achieve change.

That is not to discount the necessity and appropriateness of the reactive measures that will regulate and impose potentially serious consequences on individual employees found to have engaged in sexual harassment, or employers who have not taken reasonably practicable measures to prevent this. These recommendations and measures are important in enforcing the message that this conduct is not acceptable.

However, a penalty or consequence is typically not an effective mechanism for driving cultural or behavioural change. Equally, while important in preventing the worst types of assaults, the introduction of alcohol limits and increased security does nothing to address the causative behaviours and attitudes that result in sexual harassment occurring or being tolerated.

Cultural change, particularly within the workplace, is achieved through leadership, accountability and workforce and stakeholder engagement. This is a question of ‘will' and commitment from both employers and employees to identify and challenge the structural and attitudes that contribute to sexual harassment occurring, or an environment that tolerates it.

The recommendations that support this structural change are the ones that should be the focus of corporate investment and attention, including:

  • The treatment of sexual harassment as a ‘safety matter' requiring a risk management approach. This means that sexual harassment requires the same level of focus, thought and attention as any other safety matter and will require the identification and management of risk factors in the workplace.
  • An increase female workforce participation at supervisory and management levels across the industry.
  • Fit-for-purpose sexual harassment and assault training be mandatory for all employees. This should include a focus on what respect at work is, acceptable workplace behaviours, bystander training and intervention and standard setting.

Additional measures that will encourage cultural change include:

  • Ensuring that culture and behavioural standards are part of the KPIs and performance assessment of employees at every level of a business, and that there are appropriate mechanisms for measuring this. This encourages personal accountability for ensuring standards are satisfied and places a premium on culture, not just profit.
  • Considering new approaches to reporting and investigating instances of sexual harassment. This is a complex area where the standards and burdens of proof as well as investigative processes can disincentivise the reporting of sexual harassment and create a permissive culture where behaviour is tolerated. Addressing this is critical in ensuring that underlying issues are identified and addressed.
  • Holistic assessments of complaints. It is easy to treat sexual harassment complaints as individual behavioural issues and ignore underlying workplace factors. Complaints should be addressed on both the individual, and broader workplace level if relevant risk factors and contributors are to be addressed.

Encouragingly, the increasing influence of ESG criteria and frameworks within business, including under pressure from (increasingly activist) shareholders and stakeholders, will assist in ensuring there is a will and commitment for change.

The roadmaps are there: the Respect@Work and Equality Across the Board reports address the framework for prevention and response in detail. For those in resources or who are operating in unique, male-dominated environments, the Enough is Enough report offers more guidance.

For employers who have the will and commitment to change, the information is there. They just need to use it.

*Beth Robinson is a partner at law firm Kingston Reid.

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining News Intelligence team.

A growing series of reports, each focused on a key discussion point for the mining sector, brought to you by the Mining News Intelligence team.

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