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Building human rights into law and practice - Annual Report 2009-2010: Australian Human Rights Commission

The year in review

Building human rights into law and practice

Bolstering equality for men, women and older Australians

Important changes to federal sex and age discrimination legislation, passed by the Parliament in May 2011, will help deliver better and fairer outcomes for women, men and older Australians.

The Commission advocated strongly for the amendments, which:

  • prohibit direct discrimination against male and female employees on the grounds of family responsibility in all areas of employment
  • strengthen protection against sexual harassment in workplaces and schools, as well as through the use of new technologies
  • establish breast feeding as a separate ground of discrimination
  • create a separate statutory office for an Age Discrimination Commissioner, placing age discrimination on an equal footing with other areas of discrimination.

However, we expressed disappointment that protections in relation to family responsibility do not cover indirect discrimination.

The Commission also drew attention to the exemption in the Sex Discrimination Act which allows state and territory laws to prevent trans people from changing their legal sex on identity documents if they are married.

In June 2011, we intervened in a case before the High Court to raise important human rights principles concerning the formal recognition of gender reassignment (see page 41).

Getting more women in leadership roles

From 1 January 2011, ASX200 companies are obliged to set targets for increasing the number of women on their boards and at senior executive level. The Commission played an important role in bringing this issue to national attention and we look forward to monitoring progress in the coming year.

Complaint of disability discrimination in the provision of goods and services

The complainants, who have hearing impairments, said they were unable to enjoy performances at their local entertainment venue because the venue does not have adjustments to accommodate the needs of people with hearing impairments.

The complaints were resolved through conciliation, with an agreement that the venue operator would install a hearing support system and invite the complainants to trial the system.

Improved access for people with disability

On 1 May 2011, major changes to the way public buildings are designed, constructed and renovated came into force, which will deliver greater safety and accessibility for all Australians.

The Disability (Access to Premises – buildings) Standards 2010 usher in the most widespread improvements in building access in Australia’s history.

At the same time, changes to the Building Code of Australia were introduced to support the Premises Standards and ensure consistency between the two.

Disability Discrimination Commissioner, Graeme Innes, said these combined changes mean people with disability will be more able to participate in and contribute to the economic, cultural, social and political life of our community as equal citizens.

The Commission, in partnership with representatives from government, industry and community organisations, made a significant contribution to the development of these new standards over the past ten years.

In March 2011, we released a guideline to assist building professionals and others to understand how the new Premises Standards apply to new and upgraded public buildings.

Other important initiatives that the Commission contributed to during 2010-11 included:

  • the release of the National Disability Strategy in February 2011, which draws on the key principles of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
  • an agreement with leaders from the housing, government and community sectors to work together on a Lifetime Housing strategy that will promote the design and building of safer and more accessible homes
  • an agreement between community groups and major cinema operators that will vastly improve the provision of captions and audio description in cinemas around the country
  • updated guidelines for access to web-based information for people with disability.

Promoting the right for equal pay

During the year, the Commission joined a broad coalition of business, unions and governments to argue for equal pay for workers in the female-dominated social and community services industry.

In March 2010, the Australian Services Union launched the country’s first equal pay test case under new workplace laws.

We intervened to highlight the historical context and causes of pay inequity and the impact it has at an individual and community level.

We also provided an explanation of the international obligations that should be taken into account when applying the objects of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth).

In June 2011, the Full Bench of Fair Work Australia handed down an interim decision and called for further technical submissions in relation to the terms of the orders it should make.

Exemptions to anti-discrimination laws

The Commission is able to grant temporary exemptions from some parts of the Sex Discrimination Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination Act.

We have developed guidelines to help us determine when a temporary exemption should be granted. These guidelines are available on our website.

During the year, we received eight applications for exemptions.