Racism is bad for business

23rd Mar 2017

The recent dogfight over the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth) isn’t just another Canberra gabfest - racism is bad for business. The evidence is overwhelming. Ethnically diverse workplaces, where people are comfortable expressing cultural and religious differences, are happier, more productive and more profitable. So proposals in the parliamentary committee report on s18C to limit access to the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC; the Commission) should be resisted.

When a worker experiences racism in their private life or at work, it affects their health and their productivity. The impacts are both psychological and physical; individuals experiencing day-to-day racism suffer mental-health problems such as depression and anxiety, as well as measurable physical impacts. Cortisol, (the ‘stress hormone’), is released when someone experiences racism, which affects the immune system and metabolism. Studies have shown the resulting health problems can include chronic stress, high blood pressure and other cardiovascular issues. Racism evident in recruitment bias robs businesses of their best candidates by reducing the pool of talent to choose from.

And of course there is an economic cost to racism. According to Deakin University research published by Vichealth and the AHRC last year, it represents an impost of $45 billion per annum.

So eliminating racism in our society is bot just about fairness and equity; it is a good business strategy.

Evidence like this was canvassed during the hearings of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights in its recent inquiry into freedom of speech and the Racial Discrimination Act. The Australian Lawyers Alliance gave evidence at the hearings and not only heard terrifying tales of racism, but clear economic reasons to support its eradication.

Australia does a lot of business overseas, especially in our own ethnically and culturally diverse region of the world. Asia’s middle class is expanding, and with it opportunities to grow Australian businesses and markets in our region. However, these opportunities will shrink if we are seen as racist by our neighbours.

The AHRC and the Racial Discrimination Act play invaluable roles in eliminating and responding to racism. Whether racism happens in the workplace or in the community, the AHRC supports business when it protects people who experience racism. It receives queries when people feel they have been discriminated against on racial or other grounds and helps to resolve their complaints through conciliation. The process is usually private (unless the participants choose to go public) and there is no need for legal representation. The AHRC helps to smooth relations between people who might not appreciate the impact of their actions, or the motivations of the people who offended them. It keeps disputes out of the public eye, resolving them without court involvement in the vast majority of cases.

Perhaps most importantly, it is accessible. Anyone can call the Commission to talk about what is worrying them. There are no financial barriers to lodging complaints. It is as accessible to CEOs as it is to the unemployed. People are heard when they have a grievance, and supported in learning what is acceptable and what is not under the Act.

Quietly, without most of us knowing it, the Commission is supporting Australia to be a more cohesive and safer community. The organisation’s shoestring budget supports an essential social function. It is also an investment in business development, and reduces the costs of racism.

However, the Report recently published by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights  makes recommendations that could undermine all of that. Any reform that makes it harder for genuine complainants to access the Commission, or assert their rights in court (if required), will be a barrier to eliminating racism and the social and business benefits this represents. Despite this, the Committee recommended introducing a refundable lodgement fee when making a complaint.

It had no evidence to suggest that this would discourage unmeritorious complaints. Other recommendations, such as increasing the Commission’s ability to terminate complaints in line with its own recommendation, would surely provide any disincentive needed. Imposing a financial barrier to accessing justice is likely to deter just as many legitimate complaints as those with low prospects of success.

Changes to incurred costs are also recommended in the Report. Claimants seeking to pursue their claims in court, following dismissal by the Commission, would have to provide security for costs if recommendation 21 was implemented. While the costs arrangements proposed are already available in any civil claim (such as providing security for costs in rare cases or making certain costs payable if a reasonable settlement offer is not accepted), it is odd to specify that they are available in claims under the Racial Discrimination Act. Why do claimants under this Act need specific warning?

The Report also recommends making it more difficult for lawyers to act in racial discrimination cases. Some of these recommendations, such as asking lawyers to certify that their client has a good prospect of success, put lawyers in a challenging ethical position, making it harder to represent clients in these claims.

No one benefits by making it harder to access the Commission, or the courts, to stop racism. We rarely hear about the amazing work that it does. It lets people know that racial and other discrimination is not acceptable in Australia both those who use its services and those who experience racism but choose not to. This can only grow productivity, increase profits, and strengthen business both here and abroad.

Keeping this framework strong and accessible just makes economic sense.

Anna Talbot 
is the Legal and Policy Adviser at the Australian Lawyers Alliance.



Greg Barns 
is a barrister, spokesperson for the Prison Action and Reform Group Inc and the Australian Lawyers Alliance. 



Tags: Australian Lawyers Alliance Anna Talbot Racial Discrimination Act 1975 (Cth)