The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Working remotely or not remotely working? Australia officials seek to ban casual wear — even on video calls.

Commuters dressed in more-traditional business attire climb a flight of stairs at Martin Place in Sydney's central business district in June 2018. (Lisa Maree Williams/Bloomberg)
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SYDNEY — In a nation where top officials can be seen pounding through the surf in skimpy Speedo swimwear, a plan to force a strict dress code on Australian civil servants has the workers fighting for the right to bare arms.

An 11-page “dress and appearance” code mailed to employees of one of the country’s largest government departments in February lists Ugg boots, flip-flops and sportswear such as football jerseys among the items deemed too casual even for Casual Friday. But for people working in hotter parts of the country, a directive banning sleeveless clothing — including dresses and women’s blouses — was the one that really worked people up into a sweat.

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The rules at the Department of Home Affairs apply even to those working from home and taking video calls, a move labor unions say is a blow to workers who have stuck it out through the coronavirus pandemic without air conditioning in their homes. On Wednesday, Fair Work Australia, an independent workplace tribunal, ruled that the department should have consulted with its employees on the changes.

The dress-code document, viewed by The Washington Post, cited shorts of any kind, including dress shorts, cargo shorts, Hawaiian, athletic or board shorts, as unsuitable work attire. Activewear items, including tracksuits, sports attire and cycle shorts, along with T-shirts, polo shirts and tank tops, also were labeled inappropriate for business meetings, whether in person or online.

“Our public image is a critical component in maintaining the respect of the Australian government and the Australian community and their confidence in our integrity and professionalism,” the policy states.

Yet the country’s leaders aren’t always known for their sartorial choices. Prime Minister Scott Morrison, working from his official residence in Canberra in November while in quarantine after an overseas trip, was pictured by his photographer wearing business attire on top — an open-necked pink business shirt and navy jacket — paired with pale blue swim shorts and white flip-flops.

One of his predecessors, Tony Abbott, was often seen around Parliament House in cycle shorts and other activewear, and had a penchant for Speedos, known colloquially in Australia as “budgie smugglers.”

John Howard, one of Australia’s longest-serving leaders, wore a green and gold tracksuit — Australia’s national colors — on daily walks where he mingled with officials and constituents.

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Brooke Muscat, the deputy national president of the Community and Public Sector Union, which took the case to the tribunal, said describing sleeveless dresses and blouses as inappropriate work attire was a “ridiculous policy change.” The wording of the policy had clear gendered implications and targeted women, the union said.

The Home Affairs department said Thursday it was considering the tribunal’s decision. The department employs uniformed customs and border control officers as well as nonuniformed people in office roles in immigration and citizenship. About 54 percent of its workers are women.

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