OHS Matters: Racial Abuse in the Workplace

“It is time to prevent workplace abuse on the pitch.

Tim Paine was at work on that cricket pitch. If you abuse people at work, you will be summoned to a formal investigation. Sometimes you are demoted or lose your job. At a minimum, you end up with a formal warning. Being “under pressure’ is not a defence.

Paine is paid millions to play sport. That is a privilege that most workers never enjoy. If he cannot perform the inherent requirements of his job without abusing others, then why is he there? It is time WorkSafe investigated Cricket Australia. What effort, if any, is that employer making to prevent workplace abuse?”

Letter from union comrade Cindy O’Connor, printed in The Age recently.

The recent incidents at the cricket which led to this letter being written and sent have once again shown that sport in Australia is often nasty and racist, and that sports people are often not ‘good sports’. Not surprisingly, Indigenous and black players are those who end up copping most of the abuse – despite, or perhaps because of, their abilities in whatever game they are playing.

It is shameful that such racial abuse continues on Australia’s sports fields. There are many ‘public’ and well-known incidents – for example the iconic 1993 photo of St Kilda player Nicky Winmar who, after being racially abused by members of the Collingwood cheer squad - who yelled for him to “go and sniff some petrol” and “go walkabout where you came from” - lifted up his jumper and, facing the crowd, pointed to his skin. Social commentators and authors have described the gesture as a “powerful statement”, an “anti-racist symbol”, and one of the “most poignant” images in Australian sport. It was also credited as being a catalyst for the movement against racism in Australian football – yet the racism continues.

In 2017, the documentary Fair Game detailed the experiences of racism Brazilian-born AFL player Héritier Lumumba faced while playing professional football. According to Lumumba, the culture at Collingwood was a “boys’ club for racist and sexist jokes”, where his teammates nicknamed him ‘chimp’.

“How many more players have experienced this treatment and either say nothing or leave their sports? How much more common is it?”

The 2019 documentary The Australian Dream focussed on Adam Goodes, an indigenous footballer and one of the greatest players of his generation. In 2014 he was named Australian of the Year in 2014 for both his efforts to end racism and his work with indigenous-youth community programs. And yet this gentle man was abused and humiliated to such an extent in the 2015 season, booed by thousands time and time again, that he could not take it any more. He left the sport, or was forced out by lack of action against what has been termed an ‘overwhelming and relentless culture of racism’.

To repeat: the treatment of Indigenous and black players by their team mates, and by many fans, is shameful. But the issue is also one of worker rights: when these incidents occur in professional sport, then it’s a workplace issue. More must be done by government and employers.

In an article in The Guardian in June last year, Héritier Lumumba said that for the entirety of his 12-year career, “the AFL failed to address racism that permeates its organisation. In [his] view, it repeatedly failed its duty to uphold the human rights and workplace safety of its Black players.” He wrote that following the release of the documentary, and independent confirmation of his experiences of racial discrimination at the club. “Instead of taking responsibility as institutions responsible for the wellbeing of their employees, Collingwood and the AFL both deployed a strategy of silence and denial.”

These are just a few of the publicly exposed examples – how many more players have experienced this treatment and either say nothing or leave their sports? How much more common is it? Abuse, racial vilification and bullying of players is likely to occur not just in Australian rules football and cricket, but across other sports as well.

Under Australia’s occupational/workplace health and safety laws, employers have duties to all their employees. In effect, they must provide, ‘so far as is reasonably practicable’, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health – including psychological health - and clearly covers bullying, abuse and even ‘sledging’ wherever it occurs, even the sports field.

What this means is that employers have a legal duty to take action to prevent bullying and abuse, no matter where it comes from. It means not denying that it happens, or accepting lame excuses from the perpetrators. It means continuing to take action, developing on-going strategies and not being satisfied with token campaigns.

It also means that the bodies which regulate health and safety – WorkSafe in Victoria, SafeWork NSW, and the authorities in the other states and territories – must take action to ensure compliance with the law. Where there are workers, they have rights under the OHS/WHS laws and those with the obligation to regulate must investigate when abuses occur, prosecute where necessary, as well as being proactive in changing unacceptable workplace culture.

Lack of action by the individual employers, by the sporting organisations, and by the responsible regulators means that abuse, racism and ‘sledging’ will continue, and put the health, and the lives of workers at risk. On Invasion Day we must all take responsibility.