POLITICS

Why Isn't Domestic Violence Leave A Standard Work Condition Yet?

It's coming, but slowly, and with much controversy.

10/11/2016 3:13 PM AEDT | Updated 10/11/2016 4:47 PM AEDT
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One in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since age 15. One in four have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner. Women are five times more likely than men to require medical attention or hospitalisation as a result of intimate partner violence, and five times more likely to report fearing for their lives. Of those women who experience violence, more than half have children in their care.

These are statistics from Our Watch, which paint a picture of Australia's problem with domestic violence. These are the statistics which support the case for a dedicated domestic violence leave scheme for Australian workers, a new entitlement for employees which is slowly seeping into more and more workplaces but which is simultaneously opposed by the Minister for Employment and Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash.

Domestic violence leave, as a separate category of leave to holidays or sick leave or bereavement leave, has existed in Australia for around a decade. Big companies like Qantas, the NAB and Commonwealth banks, and Virgin offer domestic violence leave, and the Australian Council of Trade Unions said around one million workers are covered by such schemes in this country.

However, the ongoing pay deal between the ABC and the federal government, in which ABC employees pushed for domestic violence inclusions in their new agreement, has thrown the issue back into the spotlight.

ABC management and staff had come to a deal including seven days of domestic violence leave and other provisions including maternity and paternity leave upgrades, but Australian Public Service Commissioner John Lloyd said the new agreement was "in breach of the Government's workplace bargaining policy 2015".

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Experts say a supportive workplace culture is key

Cash, the minister for both women and employment, has previously stated that domestic violence leave would be a "perverse disincentive" for employers to take on female workers. Recent attacks on the idea of domestic violence leave have angered ACTU president, Ged Kearney.

"There is a moral and ethical issue here. We all have a role to play in what is a terrible thing, and employers are part of that. [Cash] had a real opportunity to say that, but she trivialised it down to the lowest common denominator, which was very disappointing," she told The Huffington Post Australia.

"It's nonsense, it's not true. You could say the same about maternity leave or carers' leave, which are in place right now. A lot of employers who offer [DV leave] say it has been great, it has improved morale, increased productivity, it hasn't cost the earth, and has enhanced their brand as an employer of choice."

Kearney said domestic violence leave was "one of the most important new protections that unions need to be bargaining for", and that such protections were necessary and should be clearly delineated from other types of leave.

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"When you're escaping violence there's a whole range of things you need to care of. You might need to go to a doctor, a counsellor, move house, get your children away from a dangerous situation, you might need to go to court, go to the bank to open a new account," she said.

"Why not use sick leave or other leave? People were using their annual and sick leave to do these things and not telling anyone why, telling people they were sick. Once you use it up, apart from the fact you don't have holidays or sick leave when you actually need it, you then need to take unpaid leave, you suffer at work, you lose your job, you lose your financial independence, then a whole other raft of issues.

"The benefit of something identified as domestic leave is it sends a clear message to the employee that their employer understands, that they can talk to the boss and they won't sack them or think they're trouble. It stops it being an issue behind closed doors. It says that the workplace is part of a complex societal issue and says we can help."

Moo Baulch, CEO of Domestic Violence NSW, said it was important that domestic violence leave be its own distinct category of leave, separate from sick or annual leave.

"It's about recognising this is not the same as having a physical or mental illness, it's something that has a specific set of needs around it. Employers should be giving out that really strong message," she said.

"It's moving in the right direction. Over the last years, since it first came into force, there has been momentum around it because we're having this different conversation around it in the workplace. A few years ago, very few people understood the need for it, or the impacts of DV. Now employers understand more and more the links between someone's personal life and work life."

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Nadine Flood is the national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, which has been heavily involved in the ABC negotiations. She told HuffPost Australia that domestic violence leave was an important symbolic measure, as well as important in a functional sense.

"Unions are advocating for domestic violence leave to be included not only in new enterprise agreements but also in awards and the national employment standard. If we are, as a community, going to seriously deal with family violence then we need to understand that being able to keep a job and have a sympathetic employer is fundamental for someone to get out of an abusive situation," she told HuffPost Australia.

Flood said she was aware of situations where women who did not have access to domestic violence leave were forced to use their entire annual leave and their sick leave to deal with domestic violence; then, after being forced onto unpaid leave, were placed on performance management or even let go by their employer. She said domestic violence leave was becoming more common in the workplace, but needed to be rolled out faster, and said the ABC example was "extraordinary".

"When this issue came up several months ago, Minister Cash argued that providing specific DV leave could discourage companies from employing women, so companies shouldn't put it forward. It was a bizarre argument when many employers are considering this," she said.

Telstra is among the big businesses to give its employees access to domestic violence leave; 10 days a year. Troy Roderick, the company's general manager of diversity and inclusion, says the scheme has been utilised and branded a success since beginning in 2014.

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"The policy includes access to additional paid leave as well as support information. We don't expect our managers to be counsellors, because there are professional people who do that work," he said.

"When you think about the prevalence of domestic violence, and since we have quite a large workforce, it stood to reason that there would be people among our colleagues experiencing that. We wanted people to be able to feel safe at work even when things weren't going well at home, so they didn't have to worry about their employment and could take time to deal with things happening at home."

Roderick said the policy applies to all Telstra employees, no matter where in the world they work.

"It's a weird question. You don't want to say you're happy people are taking the leave, but we're pleased people are getting the support they need," he said.

"Our policy says a manager may ask for evidence but I don't know of any cases where a manager has done that. We trust our people. Some commentators say people would exploit this, but why would somebody make this up? Why would they do that? When you trust your people, it all works."

If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au. In an emergency, call 000. For more information about a service in your state or local area download the DAISY App in the App Store or Google Play.

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