Australian Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane has spoken out about an alarming increase in racial hatred in Australian workplaces.

In a speech that highlighted the importance of workplace anti-discrimination training, Mr Soutphommasane explained that there had been a “significant increase” in the number of complaints about racial hatred made by members of the public over the last year. In fact, Mr Soutphommasane says that the number of racial discrimination complaints recorded by the Australian Human Rights Commission in the year 2012-13 was nearly 60 per cent higher than during the 12 months prior.

“It’s often said that racism is just a part of life: that racism will always exist; that those who experience [it] should ultimately have to accept it with stoicism. I don’t think [that] it’s good enough to leave it at this,” said Mr Soutphommasane, speaking at the University of Queensland’s International House. “There are significant harms that racism causes. Prejudice and discrimination are barriers to fair treatment and equal opportunity. They harm an individual’s freedom to participate as a citizen in the community.”

Mr Soutphommasane also warned that racism at work can have a significant impact on businesses, stating that “We also have economic reasons for believing that racism matters. When racism occurs, it can get in the way of participation and productivity.” While the human cost is clearly paramount, employers should be mindful that behaviour within a team which undermines working relationships or affects workers’ general wellbeing while at work, can ultimately impact negatively on their bottom line.

The Commissioner’s comments are supported by data from the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunities Commission’s Reporting Racism survey. The survey report released in May showed that the most common place for people to experience racism was at work. Mr Soutphommasane concluded his speech by stressing that in order to tackle racial discrimination, Australia as a whole would need to confront the problem head on.

Australian business leaders may want to take this speech as a catalyst to look closely at organisational culture and any behavioural guidelines, policies and values which underpin it.

It is important not to underestimate the potential for racism within an organisation. As Mr Soutphommasane points out, racism is not necessarily violent or malicious, it can be as simple as a joke, a casual comment or excluding someone from a conversation. Every worker has the right to live and work in freedom, without worrying about becoming a victim of racial discrimination, and employers have a responsibility to take steps to provide a safe working environment, free from discrimination and harassment.

Clear, well-communicated policies and effective anti-discrimination training are integral to ensuring a safe and healthy working environment for all.

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