Work, not Sex, won the day

On February 10 2022, the Victorian Parliament passed laws to decriminalise sex work, supporting the (Labor) government position that sex work needs to be treated the same as any other type of work. The debate, the culmination of decades of work by many sex work supporters and advocates, was won by emphasising the role of Work over the concerns about Sex. This is a strategy that other workplace safety advocates may consider.

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Can the sex industry be the same as any other industry?

The Australian State of Victoria has committed to the decriminalisation of sex work. It made this decision some time ago, conducted an inquiry into how this could be achieved and is now in a further consultative process on what laws and practices need to change. The aim is honourable – to reduce the stigma of a legitimate industry. However, there is one statement repeated in media releases and discussion papers that encapsulates the challenge:

“Decriminalisation recognises that sex work is legitimate work and should be regulated through standard business laws, like all other industries in the state.”

That challenge is can, and should, Victoria’s sex industry be treated like “all other industries”?

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OHS seen as not up to the task on sexual harassment

Then submissions to the Senate Committee inquiry into the Sex Discrimination and Fair Work (Respect at Work) Amendment Bill reveal some interesting perspectives on occupational health and safety (OHS) from Australian businesses and other organisations.

The Kingsford Legal Centre says this of the work health and safety approach to sexual harassment:

“WHS law is designed to manage work health and safety risks which are many and varied and are distinct from gendered violence and discrimination. Many cases of sexual harassment and sex discrimination are not an easy fit for the WHS framework. WHS legislation is state and territory based and relying on WHS legislation does not address the Commonwealth’s international human rights obligations under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). In also not naming the gendered nature of the issue, WHS law risks overlooking keys to prevention and culture change which are central to the Respect@Work Report.
While WHS processes may in some cases run parallel to complaints of discrimination or sexual harassment, there are fundamental ways in which WHS law differs in the management of claims. Most obviously there is not a clear process for people who have experienced discrimination and harassment to be allowed to speak through a conciliation process about the impact of such behaviour on them and seek specific forms of redress. We know from our research in this regard that this process is important in resolving complaints impacting on human rights and reflects a complainant-centred process. WHS law does not approach injuries in such a way.”

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COVID19 controls for sex work safety

Source: Ian Dyball, istockphoto

Thinking about the occupational health and safety (OHS) issues of sex work is fascinating and, to some, titillating. But work is work and the OHS issues are just as real in a room in a brothel as in any other workplace. The workplace hazards presented by COVID19 to the Australian sex industry have been identified and addressed in some excellent OHS advice from Scarlet Alliance.

Sex workers need to screen clients already for visible signs of sexually transmitted diseases so personal questions about health and infections is already part of the customer relations. (There are also requirements for customers to shower or wash prior to services) The questions asked in relation to COVID19 are the same as asked elsewhere:

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OHS, organisational culture, sex abuse and the Catholic Church

The discussion of “organisational culture” has tried to remain apolitical or amoral, but it always relies of case studies to illustrate the academic and ephemeral. Largely these studies involve major disasters, but few people work in heavy industry, chemical plants, or offshore oil rigs. Better examples could be sought by looking at other industries, such as the Catholic Church. (I really hope someone is examining this relationship in a PhD)

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Gender, OHS and Checklists

The topicality and importance of many issues highlighted in early 2020 have disappeared. One of them was the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace and Libby Lyons, Director of the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, has released the speech she intended to give at the, now cancelled, Commission on the Status of Women meeting at the United Nations. Lyons said this about sexual harassment and employers:

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Sexual harassment changes are percolating slowly

Discussion on the report into sexual harassment in Australian workplaces went missing last weekend which included International Women’s Day. March 8 generalised much of the discussion on the need for new approaches to feminism, wages and gender equity. This is not to say that organisations had forgotten about the National Inquiry’s Final Report or the occupational health and safety (OHS) context, but few were as blunt about the issue as broadcaster Virginia Trioli and workplace lawyer Liberty Sanger on ABC radio this week.

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