Almost two thirds of Australian workers say they have been bullied at work, and nearly one third claim to have been sexually harassed, according to a survey by employment website CareerOne.com.au. It showed 74 per cent of of sexual harassment cases went unreported, often because workers feared the impact it would have on their job.
Australian Human Rights Commision sex discrimination commisioner Elizabeth Broderick said the findings were no surprise, and said the dire economic climate would reinforce the culture of silence.
"Job security is now seen as all-important," she said. "People will be reluctant to do anything."
She cited one case where female cashiers at a South Australian supermarket were told they had to wear see-through shirts. Some were just 15 years old.
"They changed the uniform, and it was literally see-through. You could tell it was see-through, but all the girls had to wear it," one of the cashiers told Ms Broderick during a listening tour last year.
"In winter I'd wear a skivvy underneath it and get told to take (the skivvy) off. You're there in a see-through top and lacy bra scanning things. We complained about it, and we were told to take off the singlets underneath.
"All the men were older, and all the girls were between 15 and 18. When nothing came of the complaints I just wore the top."
In another case, a worker told Ms Broderick: "If my uncle does it, I know it's wrong. But of it's my boss or manager, I wonder if that's just how the workplace is."
Of the 62 per cent of respondents to the CareerOne.com.au survey who said they had had been bullied at work, most said a more senior person was responsible. Alarmingly, 59 per cent said they didn’t report the incident.
Kate Southam, editor of CareerOne.com.au said the economic crisis had made workers feel vulnerable.
“In the current climate where thousands of jobs are being slashed, employers have more power and workers are suffering poor conditions such as bullying fear losing their job if they complain.
“Redundancies also create greater workloads for those left behind adding to the stress caused by the challenging economic conditions. Poorly trained managers who can’t cope can resort to bullying.”
But while most complaints remain unreported, some have resulted in court action.
In one case, an African refugee who fled his homeland to avoid persecution was granted the right to sue supermarket giant Safeway after he was allegedly subjected to racial taunts, sexual harassment and discrimination at his job.
Sioum Tewolderberhan told a Melbourne court a superior pushed a trolley into his knee and another threw a carton at him, but he put up with harassment to feed his family instead of living off welfare payments.
In the five years to 2004, he claimed he was: called a black ----, not paid allowances or given rostered days off until union action; continually transferred between stores and called a troublemaker for alerting the union.
"My dream was to improve myself and now that dream has gone far, far away," he told the court in December.
His lawyer Harry Nowicki said there were a growing number of cases of bullying in the workplace, but it was difficult to prove workers had suffered severe psychological injuries.
He said his client's injuries, which led to the loss of his family and friends, was so severe a judge had ruled Mr Tewolderberhan could sue.
And Ms Southam warned employers could ultimately carry the fallout from sexual harassment and bullying case.
"Employers who turn a blind eye to bad behavious at work are failing to realise how much bullying and sexual harassment is costing them in lost productivity and staff loyalty," she said.
"Tolerating bullying and harassment is just bad business practice."