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Everyone has the right to a workplace that is safe and free from sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying. There is new legislation to enhance these protections.

What is sexual harassment?

Under the Fair Work Act 2009 (FW Act), sexual harassment is

  • an unwelcome sexual advance
  • an unwelcome request for sexual favours
  • other unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature towards another person. This includes making unwelcome written or verbal statements of a sexual nature to, or in the presence of, another person.

For a person to have sexually harassed someone, it must be reasonable to expect that in the situation, there is a possibility their behaviour would offend, humiliate or intimidate the other person. This means that the question of whether a person’s behaviour constitutes sexual harassment depends on how a reasonable person would interpret the behaviour in that situation. Behaviour that is sexual harassment in one situation may not be in a different situation.

A person could also be sexually harassed by being exposed to or witnessing this kind of behaviour. For example, overhearing a conversation or seeing a sexually explicit poster in the workplace.

Sexual harassment doesn’t have to be repeated or continuous. It can be a one-off incident. 

Examples of sexual harassment might include:

  • inappropriate physical contact, such as unwelcome touching
  • staring or leering
  • a suggestive comment or joke
  • a sexually explicit picture or poster
  • an unwanted invitation to go out on dates
  • a request for sex
  • intrusive questioning about a person's private life or body
  • unnecessary familiarity, such as deliberately brushing up against a person
  • an insult or a taunt of a sexual nature
  • a sexually explicit email or text message.
     

Serena is a Junior Project Manager working at a crane company in Darwin. She manages a small team of men who are mostly older and more experienced than her. One of her team members, Chris, continuously asks intrusive questions about Serena’s private life in front of the rest of the team, including if she is dating or sleeping with anyone. The other team members laugh off Chris’ inappropriate questions, even when Serena is visibly upset. Serena is afraid to speak with her manager about Chris’ intrusive questioning ¬and her team members’ insensitive attitudes toward these inappropriate questions - because she is worried that she may be labelled a troublemaker and unable to take a joke.

A reasonable person would likely interpret Chris’ conduct as sexual harassment as he asked unwelcome questions of a sexual nature and these questions could offend or humiliate the person being questioned, regardless of whether the intrusive questions were a one-off event or continuous. In this circumstance, Serena would most likely be the victim of workplace sexual harassment -and should contact the ABCC for further advice and support.

Kate runs a small-sized scaffolding company in Brisbane. She provides scaffolding services to builders across several projects throughout the city. Kate has recently been receiving sexually explicit text messages from Bill, a builder who subcontracted work to Kate’s company. Kate is worried she may lose the lucrative contract with Bill’s company if she rejects him, so she chooses to ignore and deflect his unwanted advances instead.  

While Kate is an independent contractor and not an employee of Bill’s company, she is still entitled to a safe and harassment free workplace. Also, even if Kate and Bill don’t always work at the same location, she has to communicate with him to provide her services, so there is an ongoing risk of sexual harassment.  

It is inappropriate to send unwelcome sexually explicit emails or text messages in any Australian workplace, including in the building and construction industry. In this circumstance, Kate can contact the ABCC for further advice and support. 

Preventing sexual harassment

Workplaces can help prevent sexual harassment by:

  • creating a safe physical and online working environment
  • providing information, instruction, training and support about the importance of preventing and addressing sexual harassment in the workplace
  • addressing unwanted or offensive behaviour early
  • encouraging reporting of sexual harassment and having an effective complaints procedure.

More information and resources are available about how to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace from:

For further information visit the Safe Work Australia website, which includes a Preventing workplace sexual harassment guide for employers.

Getting help

If you think sexual harassment has happened (or is happening) at your workplace, you can talk to:

  • a supervisor or manager
  • a health and safety representative
  • the human resources department
  • a union
  • a lawyer or
  • the ABCC.

The ABCC can provide advice and assistance to any building industry participant through our hotline or web enquiry form. Our staff will be able to assist in determining whether complaints fall within the ABCC’s jurisdiction or assist in referring enquiries to the relevant agency.

You can contact us by calling our hotline on 1800 003 338 or submitting through our web enquiry form. Our hotline operates from 7 AM – 7 PM AEDT Monday to Friday, except on public holidays.

If you think your employer has taken adverse action against you, including because you reported sexual harassment at work, you can contact the Fair Work Ombudsman to find out more about protections at work.

You can also contact your state or territory workplace health and safety body for help.

If you feel unsafe now, call 000.

If there is no immediate danger, but you need police assistance, call 131 444.

Some forms of sexual harassment are criminal conduct.

If you have experienced criminal conduct and feel you would like to make a complaint or report to the police, you can contact your relevant state or territory police.

Sexual assault support services

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, 1800RESPECT (Phone: 1800 737 732) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

Mental health support services

Lifeline
24-hour crisis support and suicide prevention.
Phone: 13 11 14
Website: www.lifeline.org.au 

Beyond Blue
Australia’s most well-known and visited mental health organisation, focused on supporting people affected by anxiety, depression and suicide.
Phone: 1300 224 636
Website: www.beyondblue.org.au

Miscarriage support services

Sands
An independent organisation that provides support for newborn death, stillbirth and miscarriage.
Phone: 1300 308 307
Website: www.sands.org.au 

Related sites

Protections from sexual harassment

Protections under the Fair Work Act

It is unlawful for an employer to take adverse action against an employee or against a prospective employee because of personal attributes protected by the FW Act. Protected attributes include a person’s sex and sexual orientation. It is also unlawful for certain persons, including employers, to take adverse action because of someone’s workplace rights, including because they have made or propose to make a complaint. For more information see our page on Discrimination, harassment and bullying.

In addition, eligible workers can seek orders to stop sexual harassment under the FW Act. Eligible workers include:

  • an employee
  • a contractor or subcontractor
  • an outworker
  • an apprentice or a trainee
  • an intern
  • a student gaining work experience
  • some volunteers.

Protections under work health and safety laws

A person conducting a business, such as an employer, has a duty to eliminate, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety risks of workplace sexual harassment.

More information and resources are available from Safe Work Australia about what sexual harassment can look like and how to prevent and respond to reports of sexual harassment in the workplace under work health and safety laws.

Each state and territory has a workplace health and safety body that can provide advice and assistance about workplace sexual harassment. You can also contact your state or territory workplace health and safety body for help.

New sexual harassment protections

On 11 September 2021, the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Act 2021 (Respect at Work amendments) took effect. These amendments aim to protect workers and empower them to address sexual harassment at work. The changes include:

  • introduction of stop sexual harassment orders
  • defining sexual harassment
  • clarifying that sexual harassment of another person in connection with employment can be a valid reason for dismissal.

You can read more about these changes below.

Eligible workers who believe they’ve been sexually harassed at work can apply to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) for an order to stop the sexual harassment.

The FWC's website has more information, including:

The laws to stop sexual harassment under the FW Act only apply to certain eligible workers in Australia including:

  • an employee
  • a contractor or subcontractor
  • an employee of a contractor or subcontractor
  • an employee of a labour hire company who has been assigned to work in a business or undertaking
  • an outworker
  • an apprentice or trainee
  • an intern
  • a student gaining work experience
  • some volunteers.

Find out more about orders to stop sexual harassment on the Fair Work Commission’s website.

The Respect at Work amendments confirm that sexual harassment at work is a form of misconduct and may be a valid reason for dismissal under the FW Act. Sexual harassment can also be serious misconduct that can result in dismissal without notice.

The Respect at Work amendments extended compassionate leave to include miscarriage. Employees can take up to two days of paid compassionate leave (unpaid for casuals) if they or their current spouse or de facto partner has a miscarriage.

Employees are also entitled to compassionate leave if they experience a stillbirth of a child who was, or would have been, an immediate family or household member of the employee.

The Respect​@Work Report

The Respect​@Work: Sexual Harassment National Inquiry Report (the report) was published following an inquiry led by Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces. According to the report, ‘almost two in five women (39%) and just over one in four men (26%) have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the past five years.’ You can read the full report on the Australian Human Rights Commission website.

The ABCC is committed to supporting victims of sexual harassment in the building and construction industry. We will continue to update the information on this page and encourage you to keep checking back here for updates. 

Sexual harassment and the building and construction industry

According to Deloitte Access Economics modelling in the report, sexual harassment cost the Australian economy $3.8 billion in 2018 (of which $2.6 billion was in lost productivity). The building and construction industry accounted for $171.8 million in lost productivity costs and was among the highest contributors for lost wellbeing.

The report noted that the construction industry was one of the most male-dominated industries in Australia, with women making up only 12% of the construction workforce. Gender inequality was highlighted in the report as the key power disparity that drives sexual harassment. Male-dominated workplace settings represent a higher risk of experiencing sexual harassment, because of:

  • the gender ratio
  • the over-representation of men in senior leadership roles
  • the nature of the work being considered ‘non-traditional’ for women
  • the masculine workplace culture.

The rate of sexual harassment overall was 17% for women and men in the building and construction industry, which is lower than the rate of 31% across all industries.

However, 51% of women in the building and construction industry reported experiencing sexual harassment in the workplace. This is four times the rate of men in the construction industry, 12% of whom report to have experienced sexual harassment.

Compared to all other industries, the construction industry also had a higher average number of harassers per incidents at 2.1 compared to 1.7.