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Australia launching measures to curb workplace bullying

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 1, 2014

AUSTRALIA has introduced measures to curb workplace bullying but this has angered the business community which says dealing with complaints will be costly and time-consuming.

For a fee of A$65 (S$73), victims can now apply to the nation's workplace watchdog, the Fair Work Commission, to request an order for the bullying to stop.

Examples of bullying listed by the commission include making belittling comments, spreading malicious rumours, staging practical jokes, excluding staff members from work-related events, pressuring them to behave in an inappropriate manner and having unreasonable expectations of them.

The commission will be able to order the employer to take on anti-bullying measures and training or order a guilty worker to undergo counselling.

Releasing details of the measures before their commencement today, the commission's president, Justice Iain Ross, said in November they were aimed at preventing bullying rather than punishing employers.

"(This) is not an avenue to provide compensation to those who have been subjected to bullying; nor is it about penalising employers," he said in a statement. "All parties will be treated fairly and relevant parties will be given an opportunity to be heard."

The new laws aim for a quick resolution of bullying and require the commission to start dealing with complaints within a fortnight of lodgement. Introduced by the previous Labor government, they define bullying as "repeated unreasonable behaviour" and said "reasonable" efforts to manage workers do not count as bullying.

At least 350,000 Australians are bullied in their job each year, leading to depression, lost work days and even suicides. Estimates of the economic cost range from A$6 billion to A$36 billion annually. The Fair Work Commission believes about 3,500 bullying claims will be made this year under the new measures. Before now, victims could lodge complaints with a variety of state and federal workplace safety regulators but there were no specific anti-bullying laws and the regulators dealt mainly with physical rather than psychological injuries.

An expert on workplace bullying in Australia, Associate Professor Diana Kelly from the University of Wollongong, said the laws were "a good start". But, she said, the onus was on the victim to take action even though many people are fearful to report workplace bullying.

"Bullying is much more widespread than people are willing to acknowledge," she told The Straits Times. "A lot of people are not going to report it… In a workplace, you are part of a social group and you might not want to be seen to make things worse."

About a third of Australians believe they have been bullied at work, according to a survey last month by WorkPro, a firm that advises on workplace safety.

Recent cases include a prisons officer being awarded A$313,000 in a court in Victoria state two weeks ago after she was bullied by her supervisor. The bullying included yelling, abuse and repeatedly being singled out for criticism.

Another horrific case of bullying which allegedly led to the suicide of a 17-year-old engineering apprentice was heard at a coronial inquest in Sydney last month. Teenager Alec Meikle was allegedly burned, sprayed with glue and set on fire during the five months before his death in 2008. The inquest is ongoing.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) strongly backed the new measures, saying they "give bullied workers a way to solve stressful, damaging and sometimes deadly workplace bullying issues".

"Every day unions hear heartbreaking story after story of bullying in the workplace and the significant ramifications on the health and well-being of these workers," said the ACTU's assistant secretary, Mr Michael Borowick, in a statement last week.

However, business groups expressed concern that low-level and frivolous matters which would ordinarily be dealt with by human resources staff will now be dealt with by the workplace commission.

The Council of Small Business of Australia said the laws will add to the workload of employers.

"It's everybody's problem in the workplace if someone is bullied, but you shouldn't go running off to the Fair Work Commission to say 'I'm hurt'," the council's executive director, Mr Peter Strong, told The Australian. "The way it works in these things is that a solicitor will say 'it will cost A$5,000 to defend yourself', so it's going to cost money."

Prof Kelly said similar complaints were made about the introduction of sexual harassment laws. If a workplace cannot prevent bullying or the psychological safety of staff, it should not be in business, she said.

jonathanmpearlman@gmail.com

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Jan 1, 2014

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