Australia’s airlines have been accused of fostering a culture of sexual harassment, after a union study suggested that 65 per cent of cabin crew have been harassed at work, with co-workers more problematic than passengers.
The Transport Workers Union (TWO) said it had surveyed “more than 400 crew” about the issue of sexual harassment at work, and it found that the majority have been victimised on the job — most on multiple occasions.
Of those who reported harassment and even assault, one in five cabin crew members have experienced more than 10 instances.
“We are touch on the groin and buttocks region every single day, sometimes every single flight,” one respondent was quoted as saying.
Most disturbing is the suggestion that it is actually colleagues that are most commonly involved in inappropriate behaviour, rather than passengers.
Of those who have experienced workplace harassment, 80 per cent said it had come from co-workers, compared to 60 per cent who said it came from passengers.
“There is definitely a culture where crew and pilots think inappropriate comments and touching are OK,” another respondent reportedly said.
Less than a third (31 per cent) said they had reported an incident to management, but the vast majority (84 per cent) were unsatisfied with the response they received.
“It was handled appallingly by management and compounded the anguish and pain already experienced by the event,” said one respondent.
“Hopefully, they at the very least read the report,” added another.
Meanwhile, another respondent claimed that an incident was covered up by their employer and they were sacked instead.
“My complaint resulted in his protection and my dismissal.”
The union took to Twitter with the handle #cabincrewtoo — a reference to the global #metoo campaign originating from Hollywood — to spread its message, and it quoted Qantas cabin crew member Hannah Rowlands as being told “You’re disrupting the network by asking not to work with this person” when she lodged a complaint.
TWU national secretary Michael Kaine labelled the findings “sad and shocking”.
“They show that airlines are not taking the problem seriously and are not supporting workers when they are faced with what are daily assaults on them,” Mr Kaine said.
“It is clear that a culture exists at airlines to at best ignore the problem and at worst protect the perpetrators.”
It follows a report last month by the Australian Human Rights Commission that found not only is sexual harassment “widespread” and “pervasive” in Australian workplaces, but that it is happening with increasing frequency.
Airlines ‘concerned’ by results
Virgin issued a statement shortly after the findings were revealed, claiming that the airline has a “zero tolerance policy” towards harassment.
“The safety and wellbeing of our team members is our number one priority and the Virgin Australia Group is concerned by the results of this survey,” it said.
“We have a zero tolerance of inappropriate behaviour and we expect our team members to uphold the Virgin Australia Group values, behaviours and Code of Conduct. Each Virgin Australia Group team member is required to participate in regular mandatory training of the Group Equal Employment Opportunity policy, which covers sexual harassment, discrimination and bullying.”
Qantas Group – representing both Qantas and budget offshoot Jetstar Australia – likewise said it takes a “zero tolerance” stance, and has dismissed 12 employees over the last year alone specifically for workplace harassment.
“We have clear processes for reporting and investigating workplace harassment claims, including whistleblower reporting that comes with additional protections to make it easier for people to come forward. These processes have helped reveal behaviour that is simply not acceptable and we’ve taken action that has included terminating people’s employment,” it said.
“We’re starting a new program later this year that will ask crew what more we can do to deal with harassment and create a more inclusive culture.”
In response to the specific allegations raised by Hannah Rowland, Qantas Group denied it forced her to continue working with the person about whom she had lodged a complaint.
“Once we became aware of the incident, it was thoroughly investigated. The employee immediately apologised and showed remorse. It was clearly inappropriate and a number of steps were taken to directly address the conduct with the individual,” said the airline.
“We offered Hannah lots of support, including rostering flexibility. We assured her that she would never be compelled to work with the person [about] whom she made the claims.”
Regional Express (Rex) subsequently replied that it too has taken action on multiple occasions after investigating complaints.
“In reviewing our records for the past 16 years, we have had five complaints of harassment by Flight Attendants all against another staff member. A majority of the complaints were found to be without merit and disciplinary action was taken for the remaining,” the regional airline said.
“Rex operates under a strict Harassment, Discrimination and Workplace Bullying Policy and every employee has to be fully acquainted with this policy at the start of employment. Under this policy, every employee is also obliged to report any such occurrences whether as a victim or a witness. Rex takes a firm view of such matters and has a zero tolerance of such behaviour and actions in the workplace.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.