#MeToo: MPs demand 'assurance' from WorkSafe of 'proper investigations' into bulllying, sexual harassment

Lawmakers are demanding "assurance" from WorkSafe that enough is being done to protect employees from bullying and sexual harassment amid the global #MeToo movement.

National MP Nikki Kaye raised concerns with WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes during the workplace health and safety regulator's annual review in Parliament on Wednesday. 

"You sort of turned up after indicating you were going to do a whole lot of work, and then the information I have is you're sort of saying you've got insufficient capabilities to address these issues," Kaye said. 

"Can you give this committee assurance about what you're doing in the area of sexual harassment and bullying to ensure that we have proper investigations underway and so we have greater visibility as a country?"

Kaye highlighted the "issue of #MeToo" - the social media hashtag that developed into a global movement following the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse allegations. 

Parkes told Kaye WorkSafe takes the issue seriously and said the regulator is "taking steps to improve our internal processes for doing investigations and our external programmes to improve all psycho-social harm". 

He said WorkSafe is working on two research pieces to better understand what the causes for bullying and sexual harassment are, and what WorkSafe needs to do differently to make workplaces safer. 

"In terms of the specific question about investigations, we reserve our criminal investigations for the most serious accusations of harassment and bullying.

"That's because we have a high burden of proof to meet in terms of laying criminal charges. At the moment we've got 11 investigations underway."

WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes.
WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes. Photo credit: Newshub

Parkes said he was "not surprised" the issue of bullying and sexual harassment came up "because we know that all psycho-social harm is an issue in New Zealand and the rest of the world". 

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway told Newshub: "WorkSafe know that this is an area that needs greater focus.

"If you think about what WorkSafe was set up to do, it was very much to respond to significant physical harm but they themselves want to be able to move more into the area of health in the workplace, bullying and harassment.

"There is quite a lot of work going on in that space. We're developing an issues paper that we want to go out for public consultation on in the next few months to get peoples' feedback about how we could improve systems around bullying and sexual harassment."

Parkes said WorkSafe is piloting a new system whereby upon receipt of a serious complaint by an employee, an official inspector is dispatched to look at the company's policies and processes in the workplace. 

He said the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) is also looking into following Australia's lead and reviewing New Zealand's health and safety at work legislation.

"Australia has done a review of its legislation and one of the areas they have identified that needed improvement was in psycho-social bullying. I understand it's on MBIE's programme to do a review."

National MP Nikki Kaye at select committee.
National MP Nikki Kaye at select committee. Photo credit: Newshub

Australia's 2018 review found that its work health and safety laws are operating as intended, but politicians were urged to develop better regulations around psychological health of employees and strengthening compliance.  

The Health and Safety Work Act requires businesses to provide a safe work environment for employees and it is WorkSafe's job to make sure they're doing that. 

Parkes said WorkSafe collects data from every time an incident is reported to them, but it does not have the powers to "reach into businesses and require them to report internal employment issues". 

He told Newshub, "I think we're doing a lot more than we used to do but there is more to do - it's a complex area and it includes employment law, health and safety law and at the extreme end criminal law.

"We have to balance our activity between catastrophic events like Whakaari [White Island eruption], acute injuries like quad bike deaths, and things like bullying and harassment."

WorkSafe contributed to the Debbie Francis review, an independent inquiry launched in November 2018 into bullying and harassment in Parliament. 

The review found instances of sexual harassment and assault, abusive texts, frequent shouting at staff, character assassination, and overall disrespectful conduct.