OHS Matters: Racial Abuse in the Workplace Part 2

In the last edition of the Workers’ Solidarity Bulletin, we looked at the ugly face of racism in the workplace, and in sport in particular. The column was sparked by a letter to The Age following a nasty incident during an Australia-India cricket match.

In this edition we revisit the topic after the AFL’s ‘Do Better’ report was leaked to the press, an Independent review into Collingwood Football Club’s responses to Incidents of Racism and Cultural Safety in the Workplace. The report, commissioned by the club, was authored by University of Technology Sydney’s distinguished professor, Yuwaalaraay woman Larissa Behrendt and Professor Lindon Coombes. The club had decided from the start that it would make the report public, yet despite having received it in mid-December of last year, there was no mention of it for over seven weeks– but surely its findings could not have come as a shock.

Although praising the club for commissioning the review, the authors left no-one in doubt, writing in the report’s foreword:

“This is not a review to determine whether racism had been perpetrated against individuals at Collingwood. On the extensive evidence on the public record and in our conversations with staff, players, ex-players and supporters, it is clear that players and fans have experienced incidents of racism and that Collingwood’s response to these incidents has been at best ineffective, or at worst exacerbated the impact of the racist incidents. The continual failures in this regard speak to a systemic racism within the Collingwood Football Club that must be addressed if things are to change.”

The report vindicates claims made by ex-Collingwood footballer Héritier Lumumba that the club has systemic problems with racism.

Many AFL fans, and even those who take a minor interest in the sport, have known of Collingwood’s appalling record when it comes to racist incidents. To quote from the Executive summary of the report: “While claims of racism have been made across the AFL, there is something distinct and egregious about Collingwood’s history.”

Despite the scathing report, Eddie McGuire at first tried to insist that he was not the president of a racist club. He even claimed that the release of the report was a proud day for the club – one can only assume that he was referring to the club’s commissioning of the report and full cooperation with the inquiry. However, the entire press conference confirmed what the report stated, that the club is perceived as “being defensive, doubling down and denying allegations”. McGuire’s speech attracted much derision, including calls for him to step down as president. He had to back down at the club’s annual general meeting, saying he ‘got it wrong’, but was refusing to step down, saying he would see out the end of his term, at the end of 2021. However, after a week of increasing public pressure, pressure on the club’s sponsors, calls from high profile Indigenous leaders and players, and politicians, and even a letter from his own players, it became clear his position was now untenable.

The reason he gave for his sudden about-face?

“People have latched on to my opening line last week and as a result I have become a lightning rod for criticism but have placed the club in a position where it is hard to move forward with our plans of clear air.”

While many have welcomed his decision, there are many more who point out that even now, McGuire sought to emphasize the good work he and the club have done/are doing; still claimed the club is not racist.

But this is not just about one man – who by the way has been given chance after chance after making racist and misogynist comments over his 20+ years at Collingwood. The report is not only important for Collingwood, but for the entire AFL, and in fact for all sporting codes. The AFL, the governing body, did nothing while Collingwood did nothing as vulnerable members of minority ethnic groups were repeatedly vilified and ridiculed at their place of work.

And while all clubs may not be the same, it is probable that most, if not all, players of colour, have experienced racism and harassment. In an interview on RN Drive last week, ex-Geelong and Brisbane Lions Indigenous footballer, Allen Christensen, told Patricia Kavelas of his own experiences. He said that even though the clubs he played at did not have the same systemic issues, and understood the needs of their players, incidents of racism still occurred. Players experienced this racism even from their own fans - on the field, their workplace. Christensen, whose family is from the Tiwi Islands, explained how these incidents triggered traumatic experiences in Indigenous players, making them relive the experiences of their families.

So, the questions posed in last edition’s column remain: what actions are clubs going to take? What actions are the governing bodies going to take? What is WorkSafe, the state’s OHS regulator, and regulators in other states, going to do?