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Improving workplace equality during COVID-19

COVID iconWith many physical workplaces now closed, we’re looking at any risks of discrimination and sexual harassment that may be amplified by employees working remotely, along with any emerging issues related to job insecurity and greater use of flexible work arrangements.

Emerging issues

People working in a wide range of industries and roles have found their working lives affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people have lost their jobs or had their hours reduced, amplifying financial pressures and other stress.

Women, in particular, will be impacted by COVID-19 safety measures. Women’s average earnings are less than men’s and they tend to hold the least secure and lowest-paying positions (for example, casual roles in retail and hospitality) – many of which has been affected by businesses closing and may not have access to Job Keeper payments. Further, women also dominate essential but low-paid industries such as nursing, aged care and social work – and these are roles that may face heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19. The importance of these roles in our society and the traditional undervaluing of this ‘female-dominated’ work has been brought into focus during the pandemic.

Access to flexible work is another issue that has emerged as a priority during the pandemic. Where women can work from home, they’re likely to bear the extra responsibility for school closures and other caring responsibilities, alongside their work commitments. Some women may face pressure from their employers to reduce their hours so they can accommodate caring responsibilities which will impact their superannuation, redundancy entitlements and pay equity, and could have knock-on effects for their career progression. On the other hand, many Victorian men are accessing flexible work to share caring responsibilities for the first time.

While there are certainly urgent priorities requiring our collective attention at the moment, equality doesn’t matter just in the good times – we can’t let important work on gender equality stop or go backwards.

What the law says

In Victoria, it’s against the law to discriminate against someone because of their sex or gender identity and a range of other attributes connected to sex, for example, parental and carer responsibilities, pregnancy and breastfeeding.

The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 also prevents employers from refusing flexible arrangements for an employee with parental or carer responsibilities, unless it’s reasonable to do so in the circumstances. For people with a disability, flexible work arrangements are an example of reasonable workplace adjustments that can allow them to work safely and productively.

How we’re addressing the issues

Through our enquiries and complaints service, we continue to support those who’ve experienced discrimination at work, whether because of their gender, parental/carer responsibilities, or another personal attribute. We’re looking closely at access to flexible work as one important way to help people make a meaningful contribution in their working lives but also at home. We are also concerned to ensure the gender pay gap is not widened during COVID-19.  A key research project we are working on involves examining barriers to pay equity (including additional COVID-19 barriers) for small and medium enterprises across particular Victorian sectors including healthcare and social assistance, the arts and financial services.

We’re also progressing work on the new edition of our sexual harassment guideline, which will provide practical advice and minimum standards to help employers meet their responsibility to provide a safe workplace, including where that workplace is largely remote or involves insecure work. The guideline will be available later this year.

How we can help

If you have a question about discrimination, sexual harassment or vilification or would like more information about how Victoria’s Charter protects your human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re here to help.

Our enquiries team can help you understand Victoria’s anti-discrimination laws and how you can make a complaint if you choose to. And if we can’t answer your question, we’ll try to help you find someone who can.

If you wish to make a complaint in relation to the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities, find out more about your options.

Read more about our response to COVID-19

Embedding human rights during COVID-19

Reducing racism during COVID-19

Protecting human rights in closed environments during COVID-19

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