Resolving discrimination fairly
Maurice Corcoran AM - Past President of the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations
Discrimination and harassment can have a real and lasting impact on people’s lives.
It can mean losing a job or getting passed over for an interview, being excluded from a venue, being abused on the street for how you look or feeling intimidated by a boss who won’t take no for an answer.
These things significantly affect the choices that people make and can undermine their self-esteem.
A central part of HREOC’s work is to help people resolve complaints of discrimination and get on with their lives.
Since 1986 HREOC has received almost 29,000 complaints from people who said they were discriminated against because of their sex, race, disability or age.
In addition, more than 3,500 complaints have been made by people claiming human rights breaches or certain forms of discrimination at work.
Our goal is to work with the parties involved to discuss the issues and help them come up with a fair and practical solution.
What do people complain about?
The overwhelming majority of complaints HREOC has received over the past 21 years have been about employment.
The workplace consistently accounts for 80 per cent or more of sex discrimination complaints. Sexual harassment and pregnancy discrimination continue to be major issues for working women.
Roughly half of all disability and race discrimination complaints are employment-related. Three quarters of complaints received since the Age Discrimination Act became law in 2004 are also employment-related.
Access to goods, services and facilities also account for a substantial proportion of disability and race discrimination complaints.
Since changes to the Racial Discrimination Act came into force in 1995, racial vilification has made up around 20 per cent of complaints lodged under the Act.
How are complaints resolved?
Complaints to HREOC are resolved through a process of conciliation, where the people involved in a complaint talk through the issues with the help of someone impartial and settle the matter on their own terms.
Conciliation is a very successful way of resolving complaints. Feedback shows that most people find our approach to be fair, informal and easy to understand. It helps them to better understand the issues and come up with solutions that are appropriate to their circumstances.
Complaint outcomes vary depending on the issues involved but can include an apology, reinstatement to a job, compensation for lost wages, changes to a policy or establishing an anti-discrimination policy.
From HREOC’s Customer Satisfaction Surveys:
. . . it looked like an impossible task but with HREOC's help I have my job back. Being back at work means the world to me. You helped my boss understand why I lodged the complaint, he’s welcomed me back and that has been great.
. . . everyone left the conciliation meeting feeling something incredible had happened and the lawyer for the school took me aside and thanked me for lodging the complaint. My daughter is now secure in her position at the school.
. . . while it’s never pleasing to have complaints made against the company, if they are managed well the experience for all of us can be a good one.
Getting in early
Resolving complaints of discrimination is crucial – but it’s just as important to prevent discrimination from happening in the first place.
Information about complaints directly informs other parts of HREOC’s work. It helps us identify patterns of discrimination where we can investigate further, either through research or a public inquiry.
The information also guides our community education programs, particularly around employment issues.
Another major role of our complaints area is to answer questions that people have about their rights and responsibilities. Last year we received over 16,000 enquiries. By providing high-quality advice and information, many issues can be sorted out before they get to the formal complaint stage.
Find out more about HREOC’s complaint process and service at www.humanrights.gov.au/complaints_information