The Unacceptable Cost of Workplace Harassment

Updated: Jul 22



Harassment can be defined as any negative action based on gender, race, sexual orientation, breastfeeding, age, disability, marital status, gender identity, or intersex status. (Australian Human Rights Commission, 2021). Clear examples can include jokes about appearance, intimidating or sexually offensive jokes, behaviour that make people uncomfortable or have a threatening intent, and derogatory comments. According to a report launched by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins in 2019 on the sexual harassment of female retail and fast-food workers, women in the retail and fast-food industry are increasingly likely to experience harassment in their workplace (The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2019). In early 2019, The Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association (SDA) approached the Australian Human Rights Commission to conduct a comprehensive survey of its members regarding harassment at the workplace.


More than 3400 SDA members participated in the 2019 member survey; it disclosed new information about the role of customers in workplace sexual harassment, both as harassers and bystanders. Some of the key findings from the survey were as follows (The Australian Human Rights Commission, 2019):

  • Female SDA members were more likely than male SDA members to have been sexually harassed at work (46 per cent compared to 29 per cent).

  • In the previous five years, a client was responsible for more than a third of all workplace sexual harassment instances (36 per cent).

  • Only 13% of SDA members have filed a formal complaint or report on their most recent workplace sexual harassment event.


With the above-related key findings and literature, I approached this case study by having a general discussion with one of my peers working with me in the same supermarket where I work. Belonging to the same profession—and having faced a similar situation as her while working—I realised how important it is to share our experiences with harassment and abuse. In the interest of privacy and safety, I have kept the store, location, and retail staff names anonymous or otherwise altered.


Whilst discussing the issue of harassment in the workplace with Alina Karki, we covered the following questions.

  • How often do you feel are female retail staff are abused/harassed at the workplace?

  • What are the consequences of not entertaining such behaviours?

  • Have you tried reaching the concerned authority or personnel within the workplace?

  • If yes, what are the agencies you tried reaching? How have they helped you through this

  • Is there any suggestion you would like to provide that can help the readers?


Alina has been part of a renowned supermarket in Australia for 4 years now. She shared her personal experiences in the store that made her feel vulnerable and related to me how they had degraded her mental wellbeing. She started her career in the retail industry as a customer service team member. During her initial days, bullying or backbiting from fellow team members was a common issue that, on a day-to-day basis, demoralised her at work. Most team members working in the store were from a specific country and community sharing the same cultural values. Being ignored during the work period, along with language barriers, caused Alina to feel excluded. A few months passed, and she felt that this issue needed to be discussed with her line manager. She felt like she could not gel with her colleagues and could not grow in that environment. A few other members were aware of the toxic environment their workplace was becoming for their staff, and they sought their line manager discuss it. The issues were seemingly resolved by having a tea talk session in the store with each shift member. However, she still experienced harassment from both customers and fellow workers alike. She also witnessed female staff being abused or harassed by some of the managers in the store itself, as well as further unwelcome behaviour from customers during work hours. She was in a position of being abused by one of the managers in the store, who continued to treat her inappropriately and made comments with the explicit purpose of stressing her out. Alina was not getting enough hours and was continuously criticised personally for her work and daily activities. Being both new to retail and a new immigrant to Australia made her helpless and directionless; Alina did not know who to contact about the environment at her workplace. She was a casual staff and could not come up with any solution for herself. One day she met an SDA Union member who approached her while working in the aisle. He helped Alina realise what rights a worker in the retail industry possesses and can exercise. After receiving continuous support and with the help of the SDA Union, she was able to confront the respective manager in front of all the authorities within the store. The manager was later suspended from his respective position and transferred from the store as many of the other female staff were also verbally abused by him in numerous ways. The women he abused all experienced a fear of losing their job, of being defamed, or their character questioned, all of which contributed towards their fear of raising their experience with others.


With this being resolved, Alina is now an SDA representative, and has been raising her voice on behalf of her fellow team members Sydney-wide. She has resolved many cases where a customer tried to abuse staff physically and verbally during work hours. Alina has also been advocating on behalf of all the harassment victims from her store who face many similar issues of being biased, faced injustice, victims of abuse or unfair treatment. Through her guidance, the work environment stays safe and healthy for all the team members. She encourages new team members to join SDA Union and provides adequate knowledge regarding fair work to ensure they are safe in the workplace.


Alina added, "There have been significant changes in the work culture of the store, and surveys every month are conducted to get feedback from the team members. Following this, we have implemented many practices to allow staff to talk about their mental health. Training regarding the mental health of staff is also compulsory in the learning hub. We also make sure employees can voice their concerns via campaigns like "Are you okay?", "My Say", and many more. Lastly, we use quick surveys conducted regarding the behaviour of line managers, which are then rated and evaluated by team members."


Alina suggests retail staff have clear communication with their respective line manager if any issues persist. The second escalation they can reach within their store is their store manager and assistants, who can then come up with alternative measures to help them. The chances of developing mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, and even panic attacks are increased when the stress levels are high due to the work environment. So, it is always important to talk about issues and concerns as soon as they arise and reach out to the SDA Union if the situation does not change.


References

SDA National. (n.d.). About the SDA. https://www.sda.org.au/about-us/who-we-are/.


The Australian Human Rights Commission. (n.d.). Harassment. https://humanrights.gov.au/quick-guide/12040.


The Australian Human Rights Commission. (29 October 2019). Results of major survey into sexual harassment of retail and fast-food workers finds women and younger workers at risk. https://humanrights.gov.au/about/news/results-major-survey-sexual-harassment-retail-and-fast-food-workers-finds-women-and.

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