Corporate Australia is coming under renewed pressure to release its staff and former staff from non-disclosure agreements, so they can be free to make submissions to the current national inquiry into workplace sexual harassment.
Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins wrote to more than 120 chief executives last year asking for special waivers that would free harassment victims to give evidence to the inquiry, but less than 20 have agreed.
The deadline for submissions has now been extended until February 28.
The inquiry was called after a nationwide survey found sexual harassment was a significant issue in Australian workplaces.
But since it began taking submissions, corporate Australia has been reluctant to cooperate by refusing to free harassment victims from their non-disclosure agreements.
Industrial advocate James Vercoe from Sexual Harassment Claims said such agreements are common in legal settlements.
“A company will normally agree to settle a claim of sexual harassment to avoid going to court, and to keep the matter from becoming public record, which could then be reported in the newspapers and on tv,” he said.
“So, in return for a compensation payment, the company will insist that the victim of the harassment sign a non-disclosure agreement which effectively gags them from speaking publicly about the matter.
“Unless victims are given special permission to give evidence to this current inquiry, then they are legally not able to speak about their experience.”
Witnesses will not be named
Ms Jenkins insists that no one giving evidence to the national inquiry will be named.
“We’re not trying to name and shame anyone, we are just trying to learn about one part of our landscape and how we deal with sexual harassment,” she recently told ABC Radio.
“What we’re asking employers to do — and to help them eliminate sexual harassment — is for a limited time, just say they won’t enforce these agreements for people who want to make confidential submissions to us.
“We actually don’t really need to know who the parties are, it’s just really limiting people who feel they’re not free to come forward.”
Ms Jenkins said unless people are free to give evidence, the true nature of workplace sexual harassment will not be known.
“When I talk to employers, they will invariably say, we don’t have an issue, it’s never happened here, and even managers are not aware that they’ve had complaints,” she said.
“Everyone thinks it’s OK, because you never hear of any problems.”
Mr Vercoe joined the calls for corporate Australia to cooperate with the inquiry.
“Companies that refuse to allow employees and former employees to disclose, in a confidential setting, their sexual harassment for the purposes of a government report aimed at addressing how we can prevent that harassment – I’d find it very difficult to accept that those companies are acting ethically or in a socially responsible manner,” he said.
Individuals can make submissions to the inquiry by clicking here.
James Vercoe is one of our specialist team at Sexual Harassment Claims who can assist people who have experienced sexual harassment or sex discrimination.
If you have experienced sexual harassment or sex discrimination, you may be entitled to compensation.
For help and advice, please call our specialist team at Sexual Harassment Claims on
1300 463 866
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