Claims of bullying and harassment among air traffic controllers

The control tower at Sydney Airport is seen as a plane takes off in Sydney. Source: AAP

A report prepared by a retired judge has found there's a toxic culture of harassment, bullying and discrimination in Australia's air traffic control centres.

Bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment at Australia's air traffic controller could be putting travellers' lives at risk, a damning report has warned.

The report by former Federal Court justice Anthony North was commissioned by the union that represents air traffic controllers.

It follows a survey of more than 500 air traffic control workers, which found almost half had reported they'd experienced bullying, discrimination or sexual harassment.

"There is a serious argument to be further investigated that the Airservices Australia workplace culture of bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment could endanger the safety of air navigation and as a result endanger the lives of air travellers," Mr North found.

Mr North concluded bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are "part of the way things are done" at Airservices, dismissing the idea they were isolated incidents.

Australia's air traffic controllers are employed by Airservices Australia, an Australian government-owned corporation that was set up in 1995 when the Civil Aviation Safety Authority was split into two separate government bodies.

Airservices Australia is responsible for the management of Australia's airspace and a retired judge has found it's also responsible for allowing a toxic culture to develop where bullying, discrimination and sexual harassment are rampant.

Mr North has released a report he was commissioned to prepare by Civil Air, the union that represents air traffic controllers.

His report mirrors the findings of a survey conducted in January which revealed widespread bullying and harassment.

Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick at press conference
Australia's Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick

Civil Air is represented by lawyer Kamal Farouque, from Maurice Blackburn.

Mr Farouque said a quarter of the female air traffic controllers that were surveyed reported being sexually harassed.

"24 per cent of women who responded, identified that they had been victims of or experienced sexual harassment and that was, that's a very high figure. It is a very concerning figure and it's something that really needs to be addressed," he said.

Mr North concluded that poor workplace culture poses a possible threat to the safety of air travellers.

Mr Farouque said it's a reasonable conclusion to draw because the workplace performance of people who are bullied and harassed is usually compromised.

"In those environments, employees so affected are likely to either not attend work or if they attend work, they could be distracted, they could lack motivation and commitment and so obviously that has consequences, you know, to the way in which people work, how they discharge their work and given that this is obviously a very critical workplace in terms of safety, that's where the issue arises, the potential issue arises here in relation to the safe discharge of operations," he said.

Civil Air's Executive Secretary Peter McGuane said the union has been concerned about the working environment for many years.

"Almost a decade ago we had a very similar situation pertaining and we believe that that had a very strong impact on people's careers and their wellbeing and health and we believe that it needs to be rectified," he said.

"It wasn't done appropriately over the last decade.

"The same problems still seem to be evident so therefore we believe there's substantial cultural change necessary."

Mr McGuane said the union felt compelled to carry out a survey and commission a retired judge to investigate because he says its own attempts to bring about change hadn't been as successful as it had wanted.

"Here is someone who's highly experienced, highly credible," he said.

"We would be accused of being alarmist on occasion and blowing these things up for some purpose, unknown, and we thought it was entirely appropriate that someone who is so well qualified almost looks at it with another set of eyes.

"So you're putting someone who has all the relevant attributes. They can look at it clinically and say well yes, there is something that requires further investigation."

Airservices Australia said it has strong systems in place to manage harassment complaints and it's committed to an inclusive workplace.

It disagrees with the conclusion that its workplace culture could negatively affect passenger safety.

Airservices Australia has hired the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to conduct a broad and independent review of its culture.

It said it will share the findings and any recommendations will be adopted to ensure that Airservices offers a safe, diverse and inclusive workplace for all of our employees.

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