If you’re a person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU), you have a duty under the model WHS laws to do all that you reasonably can to eliminate or minimise the risk of racism occurring at work.
What is racism?
Racism includes anything that offends, insults, humiliates, negatively views or unfairly treats a person or group of people because of their race, colour, descent, nationality, ethnicity, or migrant status.
Racism can cause both psychological and physical harm to the person or people it is directed at. It can also harm other people who witness or are exposed to it.
In the workplace, racism might be expressed through harmful behaviours, including harassment, abuse or humiliation, intimidating behaviour, violence, discrimination, and exclusion.
A person may experience racism through the behaviour of other workers, including supervisors, or managers. It may also come from third parties such as customers, clients or other businesses you work with, such as suppliers.
Racism can also occur systemically, for example where the organisation’s policies, procedures, and practices directly or indirectly discriminate, exclude, or disadvantage people from racially marginalised groups.
Racism in the workplace can be experienced at a worker’s usual work location or where the worker is carrying out work at a different location (e.g. at a client’s house, labour hire company, temporary secondment). It can also happen during a work-related activity such as a work trip, training course, conference or a work-related social activity.
Racism can occur as a one-off incident, be repeated, or continuous. It can be obvious or subtle. It can be directed at a person or group of people, or occur through generalised actions.
Some examples of racism in the workplace include:
- jokes or comments that cause offence
- verbal abuse
- harassment or intimidation
- exclusion from work activities
- comments about appearance, attire, religious or cultural practice
- assuming a lack of ability or knowledge of the worker because of their race
- having lower or higher expectations about performance
- treating workers less favourably or not providing the same opportunities that others would be given in a similar situation
- overlooking workers for roles and tasks because of an assumption that they can’t do it or wouldn’t be interested, and
- making assumptions about who is best placed to perform specific tasks based on their race.
Who is most at risk?
People who are racially marginalised in society are most at risk of racism. In Australia, this includes First Nations people and people from culturally diverse backgrounds.
The risk of harm from racism is greater when a person faces multiple forms of discrimination. Attributes such as gender, sexuality, migration status, disability and literacy can combine (intersect) and increase a person's vulnerability. These factors can also make workers less likely to report racism.
It is illegal to discriminate against workers (e.g. dismiss workers) for raising a WHS issue or concern including reporting racism at work.
You should also not assume that your workplace is free from racism just because no one has mentioned it or made a complaint.
Workers may not report racism for reasons such as a lack of safe and accessible ways to report, not understanding their workplace rights and the fear of potential consequences of reporting. Workers may be concerned that reporting may cause the behaviour to become worse, that they will not be believed or supported, may be seen as ‘difficult’ or lead to discriminatory conduct (e.g. losing their job, being denied promotions or being paid differently from other workers). The consequences of reporting can be a particular concern for workers in insecure employment (such as casual employees).
Racism might be hard to ‘see’ if you don’t know what you are looking for and if you have never experienced it yourself. It is important that you develop an understanding of racism and continue to build your understanding over time.
Understanding racism will help you to identify how and when it may happen and more effectively address it in your workplace.
While it is important to listen to workers who want to share their lived experiences, it is not the workers’ responsibility to educate their PCBUs on racism.
Other laws preventing racism at work
At the national level, racial discrimination and victimisation is unlawful under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth). Racial discrimination is also prohibited by state and territory anti-discrimination laws.
The Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) provides resources to help businesses understand and meet their legal obligations under these laws.
Under the Fair Work Act 2009, an employer must not behave in a way that harms a person because they have a certain feature or attribute. This includes a range of ‘protected factors’ and includes race, colour, religion and social origin.
For workers: What to do if you experience or witness racism at work
PCBUs, such as your employer or the organisation you are working for, should provide you with information and support on how to respond if racism is directed at you, what you should do if you witness it and how to report it. As well as addressing the behaviour directly, the PCBU must also ensure your safety by identifying if it could occur again and how to prevent it.
You may wish to seek advice and support from a trusted person, health and safety representative (HSR) or employee assistance program if your workplace has one. You could also seek support from other organisations such as your union, or organisations that provide helpline services, counselling services or legal services.
If you have not been able to resolve the situation within your workplace, there are a number of agencies that can give you further advice and assistance.
- If you feel you have been racially discriminated against in the workplace, you can make a complaint to the AHRC or your relevant state or territory anti-discrimination body. A lawyer or other type of advocate can also assist you make a complaint to these organisations.
- Your WHS regulator may be able to investigate if a business is meeting their WHS obligations by providing a safe working environment that is without risk to health and safety. You can also contact your WHS regulator if you feel you have been discriminated against for raising a health and safety issue.
- If you feel you or other employees have been unlawfully discriminated against in your employment you can request assistance from the Fair Work Ombudsman on 13 13 94.
This advice should be read in conjunction with the model Code of Practice: Managing psychosocial hazards at work. Racism often occurs in conjunction with other psychosocial hazards and you must consider the interaction between these hazards when managing health and safety risks.
More information on racism and cultural safety can be found at:
- the AHRC’s national campaign: Racism. It stops with me. This includes a Workplace Cultural Diversity Tool designed to help businesses promote cultural diversity and address racism in the workplace, and
- the Diversity Council of Australia - Racism at Work: How Organisations Can Stand Up to and End Workplace Racism.
SWA is not a WHS regulator and cannot advise you about WHS issues in the workplace. If you need help please contact the WHS regulator in your jurisdiction.
Other laws may also apply depending on the circumstances, for example criminal laws, anti-discrimination laws and industrial laws. Further information and advice can be obtained from the organisations and agencies below: