The Jobs and Skills Summit and LGBTIQ Australians

The Albanese Labor Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit will be held on September 1 and 2, 2022, now just eleven days away.

While there has been significant coverage of a wide range of issues relevant to this conference, there has been little to no reporting of how it will affect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers.

The letter below, to Prime Minister Albanese, Treasurer Chalmers and a number of other Ministers, seeks to place at least two important and urgent LGBTIQ policy matters onto the Jobs and Skills Summit agenda.

As always, I will publish any responses received.

*****

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese

Treasurer Jim Chalmers

Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus

Minister for Employment and Workplace Relations Tony Burke

Minister for Health and Aged Care Mark Butler

Minister for Aged Care Anika Wells

Minister for Education Jason Clare

Minister for Social Services Amanda Rishworth

Minister for the NDIS Bill Shorten

Sunday 21 August 2022

Dear Prime Minister Albanese and other Ministers

Please include LGBTIQ workers in the Jobs and Skills Summit

I am writing to you about the upcoming Jobs and Skills Summit, and the need to include lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex and queer (LGBTIQ) workers and the issues which affect them.

I was initially encouraged to observe the Summit would include a focus on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged.’[i]

However, I am both concerned and deeply disappointed by the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper, released on 17 August,[ii] which completely omits LGBTIQ Australians as one of the groups which should be considered as part of this focus.

Specifically, page 2 of that document states:

‘While the participation rate is around historically high levels, many Australians still face barriers to secure and well-paid employment. In particular, women, First Nations people, people with disability, older Australians, migrants and refugees, and those living in certain regional and remote areas face specific barriers to entering the workforce. This means there are further opportunities and obligations to ensure the benefits of strong labour market conditions are accessible to all people in Australia.’

There is no mention of LGBTIQ workers here, nor on any other of the Issues Paper’s 14 pages.

This is despite the fact employment-related discrimination against LGBTIQ workers, including and perhaps especially transgender and gender diverse workers, is well-documented.

For example, a 2021 paper[iii] found that for transgender, including gender diverse and nonbinary (trans), people:

‘The unemployment rate of 19% was three times that of the Australian general population rate of 5.5% in May 2018 and well above the youth unemployment rate (12.2%). Notably, 33% of respondents perceived discrimination in employment. Unemployment may also occur due to difficulty with name and identity documents, discrimination in basic housing and health care, and the impact of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety on an individual’s ability to seek or maintain employment. Conversely, levels of depression and anxiety may be higher due to unemployment.’

The omission of LGBTIQ workers from the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper also comes despite many LGBTIQ workers enjoying lesser workplace rights and protections than other employees, and a large number of employers being legally entitled to fire, to refuse to hire, or to otherwise discriminate against, LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. This often includes the use of taxpayers’ money in said discrimination.

These issues must be addressed if the Jobs and Skills Summit is to indeed focus on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged.’

I include below two fundamental, urgent issues which therefore must be included in the Summit’s agenda.

  1. Protect transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers under the Fair Work Act

Currently, transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers do not enjoy the same legal status under the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) as other employees, including women, people with disability, and even lesbian, gay and bisexual people.

This is because the adverse action protections in section 351, and unlawful termination protections in section 772, contain a long list of protected attributes – such as ‘race, colour, sex, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction or social origin’ – but omit the protected attributes of gender identity and sex characteristics (intersex status).

In practice, this means transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers may not have the same guaranteed access to the low-cost, low-barrier Fair Work Commission as other employees who are subjected to mistreatment or unfair dismissal simply because of who they are.

Despite raising the lack of explicit Fair Work Act protections for these workers with the previous Government for several years,[iv] they refused to take any action to address this discrepancy, even voting against straight-forward Greens amendments to the 2021 Respect@Work Bill which would have remedied the situation, providing much-needed remedies to workers.[v]

I note the then-Labor Opposition voted for some, although not all, of those Greens amendments.[vi] I also note that, as a result of advocacy from myself and others, the 2021 ALP National Conference passed the following special resolution:[vii]

‘Aligning the Fair Work Act and Sex Discrimination Act

Labor will amend the relevant sections of the Fair Work Act to align with the Sex Discrimination Act to cover workers who are currently not protected.’

Unfortunately, while implementing this commitment – which would involve adding gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act – would achieve some improvement, it would not bring that legislation up to best practice.

This is because sex characteristics[viii] is considered a more accurate, and more inclusive, protected attribute, and is the terminology preferred by intersex advocates, including Intersex Human Rights Australia.

Therefore, at least part of the response to this question on page 5 of the Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper:

‘How can we ensure workplaces are safe and fair, particularly for those people at higher risk of harassment, discrimination and other breaches of workplace minimum standards?’

is to add gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth), including in relation to adverse action (s351) and unlawful termination (s772), so that transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers have the same rights and protections as everyone else.

Recommendation 1: The Jobs and Skills Summit must ensure transgender, gender diverse and intersex workers have the same rights and protections under the Fair Work Act as other employees, including in relation to adverse action and unlawful termination.

2. Remove special exceptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers

That same question – ‘How can we ensure workplaces are safe and fair, particularly for those people at higher risk of harassment, discrimination and other breaches of workplace minimum standards?’ – is also relevant to the second issue which I submit must be on the Jobs and Skills Summit agenda: removing special exceptions which allow religious bodies to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) workers.

In fact, this issue is pertinent to a range of discussion, and questions, covered in the Issues Paper, including this statement on pages 6 and 7:

‘Addressing the barriers to participation and promoting equality of opportunity will contribute to a stronger and more inclusive economy, enable more Australians to realise their full potential, and help address current labour market challenges. This, in turn, will help ensure that the benefits of full employment are shared fairly across our community.’

And the associated questions on page 7:

  • ‘How can we reduce the barriers to employment for some Australians? How should governments, unions, business and the broader community best coordinate efforts to achieve this?’ and
  • ‘What strategies can be used to reduce discrimination and increase awareness of the value that diversity can bring to business and the broader economy?’

And on page 11: ‘How do we navigate workforce shortages in the care economy while supporting our frontline workers?’

Many people are aware of this issue because of public debate over the past five years surrounding ‘religious freedom’, the previous Government’s proposed (but thankfully-defeated) Religious Discrimination Bill, and the discriminatory (mis)treatment of LGBTQ students, teachers and other staff under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth).

Many people may not be aware of how broad these exceptions are in practice, not just under the Sex Discrimination Act, but also under the Age Discrimination Act 2004 (Cth), Fair Work Act itself (undermining both its adverse action and unlawful termination protections), and the majority of state and territory anti-discrimination laws (including in my home state of NSW where the Anti-Discrimination Act 1977 has the broadest religious exceptions in the country).

The effects of these exceptions are all-too-real for LGBTQ workers.

Not only can LGBTQ teachers be denied, or fired from, jobs for which they are otherwise eminently qualified, simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

But so too can LGBTQ aged care workers, nurses, doctors, social workers, disability workers and other employees across what is described in the Issues Paper as the care economy.

There are a range of serious consequences which flow from this discrimination, including:

  • For LGBTQ workers, obviously this includes being denied employment, and losing significant financial benefits, or alternatively being forced to stay closeted while in the workplace, with associated mental health harms.
  • For the LGBTQ community more broadly, this discrimination reinforces poorer health and well-being outcomes, as well as entrenching economic disadvantage.
  • For the services themselves, they are rejecting the best person for the job on the basis of criteria which has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to do the job. Alternatively, they are forcing some employees to not bring their whole selves to work, thereby diminishing the quality of the work those employees do.
  • This also means that, for people accessing these services, they are effectively denied being served by the most qualified person for the role. A person in an aged care home deserves the best aged care worker possible, not the best cisgender-heterosexual worker. A student deserves to learn from the most qualified teacher, not the most qualified cisgender-heterosexual one. And so on. And so on. Across society.
  • It should be remembered that the vast majority of these roles are delivering what are basically public services, like education, health, aged care, or social and disability services, and in nearly all cases using public – or taxpayers’ – money to do so. That means every Australian is helping to fund this discrimination, and even more egregiously, that LGBTQ workers are being asked to subsidise their own oppression.
  • Finally, in an era of large and growing worker shortages across education, health, aged care, and social and disability services, permitting lawful discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity discourages at least some members of the LGBTQ community from considering careers in these areas – which is perhaps a rational response to the knowledge that large employers in your chosen profession may be lawfully able to refuse to hire you, or fire you, just because of who you are.

For all of these reasons, a Jobs and Skills Summit that is focused on ‘expanding employment opportunities for all Australians including the most disadvantaged’ must seriously consider the harmful impacts of special exceptions which allow religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

And I submit it should recommend that such exceptions be abolished, not just for the benefit of those LGBTQ workers, but for the benefit of people accessing publicly-funded services in education, health, aged care, and social and disability services, and the benefit of the Australian community generally.

Recommendation 2: The Jobs and Skills Summit should call for the repeal of special exceptions allowing religious organisations to discriminate against LGBTQ workers simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Thank you in advance for considering the above issues ahead of the Jobs and Skills Summit. Please do not hesitate to contact me at the details provided should you require additional information.

Sincerely

Alastair Lawrie

Will Prime Minister Anthony Albanese ensure that significant issues affecting LGBTIQ workers are considered at the Jobs and Skills Summit?

NB This post is written in a personal capacity, and does not reflect the views of employers past or present.

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Footnotes:


[i] Prime Minister and Treasurer Joint Media Release, ‘Jobs and Skills Summit to be Held in September’, 11 July 2022, available at: https://www.pm.gov.au/media/jobs-and-skills-summit-be-held-september

[ii] Department of the Treasury, ‘Jobs and Skills Summit Issues Paper’, 17 August 2022, available at: https://treasury.gov.au/publication/2022-302672

[iii] Ingird Bretherton et al, ‘The Health and Well-Being of Transgender Australians: A National Community Survey’, LGBT Health Vol 8, No 1, 12 January 2021, available at: https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/lgbt.2020.0178

[iv] See for example: Unfairness in the Fair Work Act.

[v] See: Pathetic and Antipathetic, in Equal Measure.

[vi] The Labor Party supported the inclusion of gender identity and intersex status as protected attributes in the Fair Work Act – which are the same attributes already covered under the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) – but did not support amendments which would have added gender identity and sex characteristics as protected attributes, with the latter terminology now considered best practice, and supported by intersex community organisations including Intersex Human Rights Australia.

[vii] ALP 2021 National Platform, page 137, available at: https://alp.org.au/media/2594/2021-alp-national-platform-final-endorsed-platform.pdf

[viii] This is defined in section 4(1) of the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 (Vic) as:

‘sex characteristics means a person’s physical features relating to sex, including-

(a) genitalia and other sexual and reproductive parts of the person’s anatomy; and

(b) the person’s chromosomes, genes, hormones, and secondary physical features that emerge as a result of puberty.’