‘We need cultural change’: Women formerly employed by WA Labor mull legal challenge after workplace bullying claims

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‘We need cultural change’: Women formerly employed by WA Labor mull legal challenge after workplace bullying claims

By Hamish Hastie

A group of former Labor staffers who were unceremoniously dumped from their roles or quit due to allegedly toxic workplaces and bullying are considering legal action against the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the party itself.

The group includes former electorate officers from Kalamunda MP Matthew Hughes’ office and a staffer for Deputy Premier Roger Cook, Sanja Spasojevic, as well as at least two other women who have not yet gone public with their stories.

Former Matthew Hughes staffer Janelle Sewell.

Former Matthew Hughes staffer Janelle Sewell.Credit:Hamish Hastie

Some of the women will likely seek compensation for the way they were treated, but all want to see cultural change in political parties and Department of Premier and Cabinet human resources processes they say encourages a ‘put up and shut up’ culture.

The women have enlisted the help of Victorian barrister Gerald Grabau, who said the approach would be similar to a class-action lawsuit and focus on the legality of the dismissals and whether any discrimination took place because the former employees were all women.

“They’re wanting to hopefully pave the way for those that follow through so they don’t go through the trauma that they’ve been through,” he said.

“Professional people often don’t want to make a fuss because they are concerned about their reputation, they’re concerned about the fallout and how long proceedings might take.”

In March, Sally Spalding, Janelle Sewell and Meg Travers alleged Mr Hughes had created a toxic workplace during their time working for him that left them shattered and questioning their abilities. Mr Hughes has strongly denied the allegations.

Former Matthew Hughes staffer Sally Spalding.

Former Matthew Hughes staffer Sally Spalding.Credit:Hamish Hastie

The women also and voiced their disappointment at the lack of support offered to them by the party and the government, who have both backed Mr Hughes.

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Ms Sewell said while some of the women would seek financial compensation because of their trauma, the main reason for the legal action was to trigger meaningful changes to how electorate officers were treated.

“A lot of us were in those roles because we care about people and we care about the community, yet we weren’t afforded the same rights as a general member of the public and treated terribly,” she said.

“We’re in 2021, these are archaic ways of thinking that because you work for a member of parliament that somehow it’s like working for a king and you are therefore not entitled to anything and you are a pleb and you will just move on.

“It’s pretty backward and it’s not in the community’s interest at large because it means that members of parliament who we are meant to hold to higher standards are actually given essentially free rein.”

Ms Spalding said she hoped the action would get the party and government to reconsider how it responded to the women’s complaints.

“When the Premier then comes out and says this man has an incredible background as a great contributor to the community, well what about our backgrounds? What about our CV? What about our contribution to our working lives? They just suddenly count for nothing because he is a member of the ALP,” Ms Spalding said.

Sanja Spasojevic and her former employer Roger Cook.

Sanja Spasojevic and her former employer Roger Cook.

Ms Spasojevic, who was sacked from Mr Cook’s office in July last year for a “breakdown in trust”, said she was getting involved in the action to bring accountability to members’ offices.

“I want political staffers, in electorate offices and in ministerial offices to have protection. They do not have any protection,” she said.

“The member at a whim basically pulls the plug and he has no accountability, doesn’t have to give you a reason, and what they use is that irretrievable breakdown of the relationship.”

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Ms Spasojevic is currently fighting her dismissal in the WA Industrial Relations Commission.

Mr Grabau said he was gathering the facts of each case and expected to request negotiations with the relevant parties in the coming months.

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