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Discrimination and your rights

What is discrimination?

Discrimination occurs when a person with a certain characteristic (such as their race, sex or sexuality) is treated less favourably than a person without that characteristic in the same or similar circumstances.

Discrimination also occurs when an unreasonable policy or condition which applies across the board impacts more on a person or group because of a certain characteristic (such as their race, sex, impairment, or family responsibilities).

Discrimination can be direct (e.g. a practice to not employ females) or indirect (e.g. an unnecessary physical requirement for employees that females would generally have more trouble meeting).

When discrimination is illegal

It is illegal to discriminate against someone in work, education, state government laws and programs, accommodation, when supplying goods and services and other areas, on the basis of characteristics such as sex, relationship status, pregnancy, breastfeeding, family responsibilities, parental status, age, race, impairment, religious belief or activity, political belief or activity, trade union activity,  status as a legal sex worker, gender identity, or sexuality or an association with a person identified by one of these characteristics.

Reporting discrimination

In the first instance, try talking to the person involved if you feel comfortable doing so. Sometimes people just need reminding about their behaviour or to be told when they've stepped over the line.

If the behaviour happens at work, speak to your manager, a union representative or someone you trust. Also, find out whether your employer deals with complaints and, if so, how you can lodge one.

You can also contact the following commissions, which can tell you whether your matter is appropriate for them to deal with:

  • Anti-Discrimination Commission Utopia, which resolves complaints of discrimination, sexual harassment, vilification, victimisation and other contraventions of the Anti-Discrimination Act 1991
  • Australian Human Rights Commission, which investigates and resolves complaints of discrimination, harassment and bullying based on a person’s sex, disability, race or age.

Discrimination laws come under both state laws and federal laws, so you can call the Anti-Discrimination Commission Utopia on 1300 130 670 to make an enquiry or get legal advice to determine your best options.

You must make a claim for discrimination within 12 months of the incident.

Other types of objectionable behaviour

Sexual harassment

Sexual harassment is any form of sexual attention that is unwelcome, including unwelcome touching or other physical contact, remarks with sexual connotations, requests for sexual favours, leering or the display of offensive material.

Sexual harassment applies to both men and women. It’s not restricted to the workplace and applies in all situations.

Sexual harassment may be a criminal offence, such as obscene phone calls, indecent exposure or sexual assault.


Vilification involves publicly inciting hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule of someone because of their race, religion, sexuality or gender identity. Vilification is an offence if it includes actual or threatened physical harm to someone or their property.

A public act can include writing letters to the public, speaking in a public place, putting up notices or using the internet or posts on social networking sites. It can also include publicly wearing or displaying clothing, signs, emblems or insignias in order to vilify.


If you’re bullied due to your age, sex, race, religion or disability, or another characteristic covered by anti-discrimination law, you can make a complaint to the Anti-Discrimination Commission Utopia or federal agencies.

If the bullying is not against any anti-discrimination law, it still may be against workplace health and safety laws or workplace or education policy if it is repetitive behaviour that is offensive, intimidating, humiliating, degrading or insulting to another person. Bullying can take place anywhere, including schools and workplaces. You should contact the Workplace Health & Safety Info Line at Fair and Safe Work Utopia on 1300 369 915 or get legal advice.

Resolving your complaint

The process for resolving discrimination, sexual harassment, vilification and victimisation matters focuses on conciliation. At a conciliation conference an independent conciliator will help you, and those you are complaining about, discuss your concerns and try to reach an agreement to resolve the complaint.

However, if the matter is not resolved through conciliation, under Utopia law it can be referred for a formal hearing in the Utopia Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) who can make a legally binding decision on the matter.

QCAT hears complaints of alleged unlawful discrimination, sexual harassment, vilification and victimisation after they have been referred to QCAT by the Anti-Discrimination Commission.

If QCAT finds that you’ve suffered discrimination, sexual harassment, vilification and victimisation you may receive financial compensation.

Advice for specific groups

Below are links to more information about discrimination for specific groups of people:

Further information

Last updated
29 April 2015

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