CFA staff share alleged bullying, discrimination experiences at Victoria’s fire services
The Victorian Government requested the now-suppressed report over concerns about CFA culture. (AAP: David Crosling)
Country Fire Authority staff who say the Victorian fire service is plagued with a culture of bullying and sexism have spoken out about their experiences, in the hope that it will prompt the CFA to request the release of a suppressed report into the issue.
But the CFA has rejected those calls, and the organisation’s chief officer said he felt any attempt to secure the release of the report could become a “legal nightmare”, in a leaked recording obtained by the ABC.
- CFA staff report being told “women don’t belong” and to “work around” bullying behaviour
- Staff avoided making complaints amid fears it could damage their careers
- The CFA’s chief executive said the organisation was “determined” to improve its culture
The report was compiled by the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission (VEOHRC) at the request of the Victorian Government in December 2015 after concerns were raised about a culture of bullying within the fire services.
In October, the United Firefighters’ Union (UFU) won a legal battle to block the release of the results of the investigation, with the Court of Appeal ruling that the review was unlawful because only the CFA or the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (MFB) had the power to request the review, not the Government.
The ABC has spoken to several current and former CFA staff who are concerned the suppression of the report will slow cultural change and mean “the bullies [have] won”.
Employee allegedly told to ‘work around’ bullying behaviour
Current CFA staff member Sarah* told ABC Radio Melbourne it had been “hell” working at the organisation.
She claimed she was bullied over a 20-year period by a manager who once stood up in a meeting and told staff he had made her cry.
“A girl had brought in a passionfruit and he made her throw it away because he didn’t like the smell of passionfruit,” she told the ABC.
“And she did it, because it was him and you don’t ever stand up … or all hell gets unleashed.”
Sarah said she never made a formal complaint because she did not have the backing of her line manager.
“I’d heard for so long, ‘It’s just him, we have to work around it’.”
The CFA said it was “overhauling” its complaint processes in response to the concerns raised. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
She said she was devastated when the VEOHRC report was suppressed.
“It just meant the bullies won and it meant that there was no recourse, it meant that there needed to be no action.”
In a statement, the CFA said it had not sought legal advice on requesting a “retrospective investigation” to try to compel the report’s release, “as the Court of Appeal’s decision was clear”.
‘We’ve just got to get on and fix it’
The ABC has obtained an audio recording of a management meeting held shortly after the court’s ruling, where senior CFA staff discussed the impact of the decision and the need to improve complaint processes.
CFA chief officer Steve Warrington can be heard arguing against the CFA requesting the VEOHRC report be made public.
“It is a legal nightmare for us to do that and it puts it back in the public space,” he said.
“My view is that our priority has got to be not focusing on the public persona but making sure we are supporting our people.
“We know enough now, we’ve got some issues and we’ve got to walk up to it.
“I don’t think we need VEOHRC, I don’t think we need anything else, we know where our issues are, we’ve just got to get on and fix it.”
The CFA’s executive director of volunteerism and strategy, John Haynes, is heard to agree.
“We shouldn’t need an outside agency to tell us what we need to do, we should be able to do it ourselves if we’re fair dinkum about it,” he said.
“In the past, we haven’t been that well in having a complaints system … and then people lose faith in our own systems, and then look for an external party to solve the problems we should be able to fix ourselves.”
It is not suggested that any of the participants in the meeting were the subject of allegations of inappropriate behaviour.
In a statement, CFA chief executive Paul Smith said the comments during the “covertly recorded” conversation demonstrated the commitment of CFA leaders to improving the organisation.
“It also highlights our determination to make changes to ensure the CFA is an organisation where members feel valued and supported,” he said.
Fears formal complaints would harm careers
The CFA management’s concern that complaints processes had not been effective in the past was shared by several current and former staff who spoke to the ABC.
One former senior CFA officer said bullying was rarely reported due to a lack of confidence in the formal complaints processes.
He said he was bullied “quite seriously” by a superior in emergency management on three or four separate occasions.
“All of a sudden he was yelling and screaming at me that I should never have been employed by the CFA and I was a waste of space,” he said.
“He was ranting for about five minutes.”
The former senior CFA officer said a senior member of the organisation urged him to “report it, it’s bullying”, but he did not due to fears it would limit his career.
‘Women don’t belong’
Another current staff member said she was told by a male firefighter that “women don’t belong” in the CFA.
She said she had been subjected to “awful comments of a sexual nature” designed to “degrade or diminish her”.
“They were quite specific comments in terms of the clothing I was wearing, my body shape and what my out-of-work activities may or may not be,” she said.
“There is a general unfairness in the way some people [women and other minorities] are treated.”
Another female employee said she left a job she loved at the CFA earlier this year due to the culture.
In her 13 years at the organisation, she did not make a formal complaint about alleged bullying because she “knew it was going to jeopardise [her] employment”.
When the report was suppressed, she said she felt like she had “been bullied again”.
“Everybody who contributed to VEOHRC put a lot of faith in the fact that real positive change was going to come and now with the report not being released a lot of people have lost faith and are reliving those traumas,” she said.
Another staff member, Emily, filed a formal complaint with the VEOHRC for pregnancy and carer discrimination after she was overlooked for a job she had been acting in for months.
“The job was only ever ultimately advertised very shortly before my next period of maternity leave started, and in fact the interviews for that position were held on my first scheduled day of maternity leave,” she told ABC Radio Melbourne.
Emily filed a formal complaint over the CFA’s job recruitment process. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)
“So the timing was either very coincidental or very blatantly discriminatory and I feel like it was the latter.”
Emily said her experience at the CFA saw her leave the workforce for almost eight years.
“It’s had lasting impact on me and my family,” she said.
“I have felt a growing anger and the silencing of this report has just magnified that for me.”
Emily said her experience at the CFA shattered her professional confidence. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Matilda Marozzi)
In his statement, Mr Smith said the CFA had been “going to great lengths to change and improve the culture universally”.
He said this included “overhauling our complaints processes to ensure issues raised are addressed more effectively” and people have confidence in the process.
“Every single CFA employee and volunteer has the right to work in an environment that is free from any sort of antisocial behaviour,” Mr Smith said.
The MFB said it would be inappropriate to comment further following the Court of Appeal’s decision.
The UFU has been contacted for comment.
*A number of people have spoken to the ABC on the condition they are not identified. They fear losing their jobs or being targeted at work.