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What to do if you experience racial violence or aggression at work

All employers have a legal responsibility (under the OHS Act) to make sure that their employees are safe at work. That means safe from physical hazards like extreme heat or trip hazards, but also psycho-social hazards like occupational violence or aggression. 

Workers who are people of colour or who belong to a minority culture or relgion may experience violence and aggression that is specifically targeted towards their racial or cultural identity. For example, while all call-centre workers may experience a risk of verbal abuse, call centre workers from South Asia are more likely to experience racialised abuse, and experience it more frequently. Over time, incidents of racial abuse or violence can have serious consequences for your mental and physical health, as well as making you feel unsafe and unhappy at work.

The bottom line: racial violence or aggression is a workplace safety issue, and you have the right to address it just like any other safety issue. 

Experiencing racial violence at work: steps to take as a worker

Do you have time to recover?

Most websites about experiencing racism will advise you to take a moment to recover from the experience of abuse, but workers in many workplaces are under such extreme monitoring or workload targets that they feel unable to do so.

If this is the case for you, raise this issue with your OHS rep and ask them to advocate for recovery time without penalty after such incidents. If you have access to sick leave, you are entitled to use it for psychological health reasons.

Are you able to safely remove yourself from the hazard?

Workers in customer service may find that they are pressured to continue serving a racially abusive customer. While many workplaces proudly advertise a “zero tolerance” policy, the workplace may not be proactive about actually removing abusive customers. The responsibility for removing abusive patrons falls on your employer - you have the right to a safe workplace.

You are within your rights to refuse unsafe work, which may include refusing to continue dealing with an abusive individual (in person, online or over the phone). In practice, you may need to document the circumstances of your refusal (make note of any witnesses or put your objection in writing) to protect yourself from your employer taking action against you for standing up for your rights.

Can you respond?

From a workplace rights perspective, the safest course is to remove yourself from the racial abuse hazard and make an incident report to document the issue. However if the abuse is coming from a colleague or someone else you wish to educate, you may decide to respond. It is important that you do not retaliate to their provocation with your own abuse or aggression - that puts you at legal risk and risks your employment. But you don’t have to pretend that their comments or behaviour are ok. Ask questions like “why did you say that?”, “why is that funny?” or “do you think that’s appropriate?”. Explain that their comments caused you harm, and that you have a right to a safe workplace, just like they do. 

How can you document or report?

Regardless of their response, it is advisable to document the incident in an OHS register, an email to your supervisor, OHS rep or union delegate, or in your own personal files. If the behaviour continues, you will need to establish a repeated pattern of behaviour in order to show that the person is bullying you.

If you wish to report the behaviour to your employer, your union OHS Rep, Delegate or organiser can attend the meeting as a support person.

Seek support:

If your workplace provides access to an Employee Assistance Program you can call them to talk through your experience. You may also have a Mental Health First Aid practitioner at your workplace to help you connect with a counsellor.

Your co-workers can also provide support to you, even if they may not share your cultural background. Talking about your experience can help your co-workers to understand the impact of racism. With the help of your union, you can enlist their industrial support for a collective push for cultural safety at work. 

Winning cultural safety at work: Avenues for change

  • First and most importantly - elect an OHS Representative for your work group! All employees have the right to elect an OHS Representative or "HSR" (Health and Safety Representative) and send them for training in how to exercise their duties.  
  • Your OHS Rep has powers under the OHS Act to stop work that they reasonably believe will injure any worker, by issuing a “Provisional Improvement Notice”. If there is an active or ongoing abusive or violent situation at your work, they can “PIN” the circumstance or area of work and prevent any work until a WorkSafe Inspector inspects the workplace. 
  • Your OHS Committee and your union delegate can win structural changes to your work to mitigate or prevent further incidences of racial abuse. This may include training for staff in cultural safety.
  • Your OHS Rep or OHS Committee can address psycho-social hazards at work by insisting on appropriate controls such as breaks from work, a space in which workers can remove themselves from abuse, or rostering controls. Is it possible to rotate people off the phone for a portion of each day?
  • Workers Compensation may be available to workers who have been injured or unable to work due to injury - although the State Government is currently proposing changes to restrict access by workers who have experienced psycho-social injury. Contact Union Assist for help navigating WorkCover. 

Make it safe! Action for health and safety reps

Victorian Trades Hall Council acknowledges that global events can increase the risk of racialised abuse. Your safety and your psychological health is important. If you are experiencing racial abuse hazards at work or if your mental health is being impacted by global events, we encourage you to seek support from a health professional. 

If one of your colleagues is experiencing racial abuse or violence at work, we encourage you to voice your support for them and work with them for workplace change. 

  • Talk with your members, particularly those who are at risk of racial or gendered violence, or those who have to work alone for at least some of the time, as they may be more vulnerable. Discuss with them their ideas and issues.
  • Ensure an assessment is done to identify risk factors such as: lone working on and off site and other potential hazards.
  • Investigate if jobs can be re-organised to provide a safer system of work, including ensuring there are adequate numbers of staff. Download the Workplace Violence Safety Audit to assist you.
  • Ensure that members report and document all incidents.
  • Raise any concerns or issues of security with your employer as soon as possible.
  • Have you done HSR Refresher training recently? You can receive specific training in having mental health conversations that will help you to address cultural safety issues
  • Contact your union for further advice. Many unions have publications and policies on violence. Some examples include:
    • The Australian Nursing Federation - Zero Tolerance Policy.
    • The Ambulance Employees Association of Victoria has issued guidelines for members at risk of violence.

More information

There is stacks of information for Victorian workers about OHS issues at our OHS site, You can also ask questions via Ask Renata

From WorkSafe Victoria - the  Occupational Violence topic page:

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