Victoria’s human rights watchdog will be asked to investigate claims of bullying, harassment, discrimination, victimisation and sexual assault experienced by State Emergency Service members.
SES chief executive Stephen Griffin said on Tuesday that he would contact the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission following the release of a report in which 285 volunteers and staff disclosed workplace misconduct, with several recounting incidents damaging enough to have caused them to consider suicide.
A Victoria State Emergency Service Volunteer Association survey found 133 reports of workplace bullying, among other complaints.Credit:
“We take these issues very seriously, we want to deal with them,” he said. “I think we’ve got many good things in place. Unfortunately, there are some issues we need to get on top of and we need to continue on the road of improving behaviour and attitudes.”
Mr Griffin said consultant Emma Kirkwood of Beyond Frontiers had been commissioned to produce an independent report on sexual harassment and discrimination in the SES after complaints were raised earlier this year.
The report is expected to be handed to management on Friday, but Mr Griffin said he would also ask the Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to consider an investigation and analysis of the SES’ internal processes.
The Victoria State Emergency Service Volunteer Association Conduct and Culture Survey 2021 included 133 reports of workplace bullying, 109 instances of people having witnessed bullying and 86 of people having been a support person for someone targeted. Gendered abuse included cases of coercive control (47 reports), sexual harassment or unwanted attention (75) and 12 stalking allegations.
One person said they had been subject to workplace sexual assault and attempted rape and another person verified they’d had the incident reported to them.
Mr Griffin said of the association’s report: “There are issues there that need to be taken seriously.”
And with similar allegations made in other emergency services workplaces “and even Federal Parliament, we should be doing something proactively here”.
After the association’s report, compiled from a survey in May and June, a former member told president Faye Bendrups she had been stalked by a more senior SES officer, physically assaulted by the woman, followed by her in her SES-badged vehicle and chased through a supermarket by the woman while she was wearing her SES uniform.
The former member said she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder following the abuse and the alleged perpetrator was convicted of unlawful assault (documentation of which has been provided to the association). An SES inquiry had not resulted in action against the woman.
“Incidents such as this and others that are in our survey suggest that the only sensible course of action is to have [the human rights commission] inquire into the culture of this workplace,” Ms Bendrups said. “This is extremely good news and the association is looking forward to working collaboratively with VicSES on this.”
Ms Bendrups said volunteers were reluctant to participate in internal SES reviews “because of fear of victimisation”. “Current measures are seen as too little, too late, and these types of cultural issues have been ongoing for years,” she said.
Nicole Warren, an SES volunteer for three years who has conducted more than 100 callouts, said she had been subject to repeated homophobic slurs while in her SES workplace. On one occasion a man had said to her, “You don’t need to worry about getting sweaty boobs because you don’t have any boobs,” referring to the fact Ms Warren had had surgery for breast cancer.
“I’m now on anti-depressants, which I’ve never been on in my life or through all my cancer journey. I’ve just been that low [after the SES workplace abuse]. In January I burst into tears at my oncologist and said, ‘I’m struggling, I just want to put my car into a tree.’ ”
Ms Warren said she would resign from the SES, as would her wife, who is also a volunteer.
Like several other SES volunteers or staff who have contacted The Age, she said that after she complained she was victimised. The SES said it had investigated Ms Warren’s complaint.
One long-serving staff member, who asked not to be named, said he was so traumatised by bullying from a manager that he had been “broken” and would shake uncontrollably at work.
“Due to the actions and victimisation of some of the staff, some have had such reaction to the mental stress it’s involved, shaking and collapsing at the mere thought of what they might have to endure again,” he said.
The Minister for Police and Emergency Services, Lisa Neville, and the human rights commission have been contacted for comment.
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