Australian trade unions have used International Women's Day to call on the federal government to enshrine paid domestic violence leave as a basic employment condition for all workers, with their version of 'Three Billboards' placed outside the office of the Minister for Women.
Kelly O'Dwyer is the federal government minister with responsibility for initiatives such as "strengthening women's economic security including women's workforce participation", "supporting more women into leadership positions" and "ensuring that women and their children are safe from violence."
On Thursday morning, as International Women's Day was being marked, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) ― the country's peak union body, representing more than two million workers ― parked three red billboards outside O'Dwyer's Melbourne office. The large red billboards, in the style of those central to the plot of the film 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri', stated "women are being killed", "paid domestic leave can save lives" and "why no action, Kelly O'Dwyer?"
The ACTU is calling on the government to make 10 days of paid domestic violence leave available to all workers. Australian trade unions have been pushing for paid domestic violence leave to be inserted into government-mandated minimum working conditions for all workers nationwide for some time.
Statistics collated by Our Watch, a not-for-profit which aims to raise awareness about violence against women and children, state that one in three Australian women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15, and one in four have experienced physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner. Our Watch says on average, one woman in Australia is killed each week by a current or former partner. Another monitoring project, Destroy The Joint, reported that, as of March 4, at least 11 women have been killed in domestic violence situations already in 2018.
Domestic violence leave is an uncommon yet growing workplace condition in Australia. Paid time off for workers to deal with domestic violence situations ― such as being forced to leave home, resettle children or pets, get their affairs and finances in order, or seek medical or psychological help ― is available to around one million workers in Australia, according to the ACTU, but is only provided on a voluntary basis by forward-thinking employers, and is not yet a standard condition available to all workers.
O'Dwyer said it was "absolutely disgraceful that... the ACTU would play politics with domestic violence in an attempt to score cheap political points," to which the union answered on Twitter:
Kelly O'Dwyer is accusing us of politicising domestic violence leave.
— Australian Unions (@unionsaustralia) March 8, 2018
"We're going to do whatever is necessary to bring this issue into the open," ACTU secretary Sally McManus said.
″[Workers] are going to be more productive and they're going to stay in their jobs."
Unions have claimed that such a nationwide scheme of domestic violence leave would cost as little as five cents per employee, and have appealed to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) ― Australia's industrial umpire ― for the condition to become a standard work entitlement. However, the reform was opposed by the former Minister for Women, Michaelia Cash, and O'Dwyer has not yet expressed support for the change. The unions are calling for the government to bypass the FWC and make a legislative change to insert paid domestic violence leave as a minimum work condition.
"Like Frances McDormand's character in the film, Australian women are outraged," McManus said.
"The Turnbull Government is the only major party that doesn't support 10 days paid domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards. We have lobbied them, gone through the courts and regulatory bodies and come up empty-handed."
"Women experiencing violence need paid leave to be able to leave. In 2018 women should not be forced to choose between their income and their safety."
Last year, the FWC ruled 10 days unpaid domestic violence leave should be available under standard work agreements, but unions are pushing for the 10 days to be paid leave, so that domestic violence victims do not have to choose between earning money or making emergency arrangements. Unions celebrated it as a minor win at the time, claiming it would be the first such system of its type in the world, but committed to continuing the fight to secure paid leave.
"We need to change our current workplace laws because they are failing women," said national secretary of the Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association, Gerard Dwyer, at the time of the decision.
"One way to do that is by providing access to the time off they need to escape an abusive or violent situation, including attending court hearings or looking for a safe home to relocate children and pets."
The billboards will drive around Melbourne for the next few days.