We all want to be treated fairly. At work or school, when we buy something or receive a service. We don’t want to be judged simply because of how we look, our disability, sex, or our age. Unfortunately, people are often judged on an aspect of their body or character, rather than being seen as a whole person. In Victoria we have a law that protects people from this kind of unfair treatment.
What is discrimination?
When we talk about a person being discriminated against, it means they’re being treated badly or unfairly because of a personal characteristic that is protected by the law. The Equal Opportunity Act 2010 describes it as being treated “unfavourably”.
How does the law protect me?
The Equal Opportunity Act makes discrimination because of a protected personal characteristic against the law. The Commission can help resolve complaints of discrimination.
Characteristics protected in the Equal Opportunity Act are:
- employment activity
- expunged homosexual conviction
- gender identity
- industrial activity
- lawful sexual activity
- marital status
- parent and carer status
- physical features
- political belief or activity
- pregnancy and breastfeeding
- profession, trade or occupation
- religious belief or activity
- sex characteristics
- sexual orientation
- spent conviction
- personal association with someone who has, or is assumed to have, one of these personal characteristics.
Protected areas of public life
Discrimination is against the law when it happens in a specific area of public life.
These public places include:
- aged care and retirement
- banking and insurance
- healthcare, hospitals and GPs
- hotels, camping sites and rental properties
- local government
- Police, the courts and government departments
- prisons and youth detention
- schools, TAFE and universities
- shops, restaurants and nightclubs
- transport services
People who work in these areas have a positive duty to make sure you don’t face discrimination.
Discrimination in the workplace
Almost half of complaints we received in 2020-21 were about unfair treatment in the workplace (46% in 2020-21).
While a person is responsible for their own unlawful behaviour, employers can also be held responsible.
Under the Equal Opportunity Act, employers have a positive duty to eliminate discrimination, sexual harassment and victimisation as far as possible.
Victoria is unique in having a positive duty, which creates an opportunity to prevent unlawful behaviour. It helps organisations put a healthy workplace culture in place, just as occupational health and safety laws require employers to take appropriate steps to ensure injuries don’t occur.
To ensure they are complying with the positive duty, organisations should also put measures in place to ensure that complaints are responded to swiftly and appropriately when they do arise.
The positive duty applies to employers of all sizes, regardless of whether they are a major company or a small cafe, and covers all types of workers:
- full-time, part-time and casual employees
- agents and contract workers
- trainees and apprentices.
It applies to all stages of employment, including:
Different kinds of discrimination
Discrimination can be direct or indirect. Both kinds of discrimination are against the law.
Direct discrimination happens when someone is treated unfavourably because of a personal characteristic protected by the law.
Direct discrimination often happens because of unfair assumptions about what people with certain personal characteristics can and cannot do.
For example, George applies for a position with a construction company but doesn’t get the job. When he calls the company’s human resources manager to ask why he wasn’t chosen, she tells George, “We’ve employed people from your country before. You lot don’t share our work ethic”.
Indirect discrimination happens when there is an unreasonable requirement, condition or practice that disadvantages a person, or a group of people, because of a personal characteristic.
For example, a factory makes all employees start at 6am. This might seem to treat everyone equally, but it could disadvantage employees needing to care for children, who are usually women. If it is not a reasonable requirement, this will be indirect discrimination.
Are there any exceptions to the law?
There are some exceptions in the Equal Opportunity Act that mean it’s not against the law to discriminate in particular circumstances. For example, discrimination is not against the law if there is a real risk to someone’s health, safety or property.
Find out more about exceptions.
What can I do if I’m discriminated against?
You can make a complaint
Get help from the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission.
You can make a complaint to us if you think you have experienced:
If you wish, someone else can make a complaint for you. Find out how the Commission helps people resolve complaints.
We can also give you information about your rights.
It is also against the law to victimise a person, which means treat them badly or unfairly, because they have made a complaint about discrimination, sexual harassment or vilification, or have helped someone else to make a complaint.