Farmer tackles risk to family business

Ann RawlingsCountryman
Belinda Lay, with a copy of Whispers From the Bush — the Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women.
Camera IconBelinda Lay, with a copy of Whispers From the Bush — the Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women. Credit: Dorothy Henderson

After tending to livestock, crops and the books, developing a policy around employee relations may not factor prominently on the radar of farm life.

But workplace discrimination and harassment are matters that any small business — including a farm enterprise — should consider, according to Esperance farmer Belinda Lay.

Ms Lay, who runs a mixed sheep and cropping partnership alongside her husband, Deon, and Deon’s son, Joshua, has been on a journey of discovery, first in a bid to protect the family business and, second, to advocate for change.

“This is something that I have done by choice,” she said. “This is not an issue that I have had to deal with.”

With 73 per cent of women working within an Australian rural, regional or remote workplace experiencing sexual harassment at some point in their career, Ms Lay said it was not a matter of if harassment happened, but when.

“The average rate for any other industry is 25 per cent, yet here we are nearly three times any other industry for harassment rate. I found that shocking,” she said. “As someone who is employing people, at 73 per cent harassment rate, there’s a pretty high risk to my business.”

Ms Lay said sexual harassment claims could cost a business between $75,000 and $125,000 to settle, not including legal fees.

“To me, that was a new chaser bin, or a spreader, or a nice house renovation — it was not something that I wanted to be unaware of, or not address, in my enterprise,” she said.

With 75 per cent of complaints made to the Australian Human Rights Commission in 2016-17 taking between three and six months to resolve, Ms Lay said the process was not quick and easy — for both the business owner and their employee. “This would be happening while they are still employed by you, so it would make your workplace pretty awkward,” she said.

When looking into why the sexual harassment rate within the agricultural industry was so high, Ms Lay found system failure was one determining factor.

“In my farm enterprise, there are three of us and we are all related. We are the business owners, the HR department and training department, so if one of our employees complains about behaviour, they have to complain to us — either the husband, the wife or the son,” she said.

Ms Lay said it perpetuated the industry’s “fit in or feck off” culture.

With four pieces of legislation influencing the processes that businesses should have in place, Ms Lay said there were certain areas that farm owners should address, from the interview process to providing adequate facilities for staff such as toilets.

“Assess the cultures in your business and remove any that are undesirable or change them,” she said. “Develop a policy, there is a template you can use on the Australian Human Rights Commission website, and implement it.”

Ms Lay said treating each employee the same, whether they were male or female, was important, especially when having a conversation or giving instructions on the farm.

Assess the cultures in your business and remove any that are undesirable or change them.

“Language is important. I found I actually gave more information to my female staff than my male staff, I just assumed they knew what they were doing,” she said. “You have to be careful about that — instructions must be neutral.”

Addressing the pay gap between men and women is also a big issue within the industry, according to Ms Lay.

“In our enterprise, everyone starts on the same rate,” Ms Lay said. “Then after three weeks, we assess whether what they said is actually what they can do.”

Employers must also be consistent when firing an employee.

“You are setting a precedent when you fire someone, and there is a process — make sure you follow that process,” Ms Lay said.

Her work, inspired by the research of Australian National University associate professor Skye Saunders in Whispers From the Bush — the Workplace Sexual Harassment of Australian Rural Women, has this week taken Ms Lay to Canberra for a conference hosted by Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins.

She said she hoped her presence would give voice to an issue that will only continue to gain in importance within Australian workplaces.

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