politics

You never know what's going on in someone's home. That's why we need family violence leave.

Years ago, I watched as a person gave evidence to the Fair Work Commission about why they felt their dismissal was unfair.

The employer, a large government organisation, had dismissed the person because of too many unexplained absences. The employer pointed out that they had a business to run, which was constantly being hampered by the repeated absences of the worker in question.

But no one expected what followed. In a quiet and measured tone, the worker began detailing violent screaming sessions and abuse, frequent police visits, and being threatened with a knife before work on a Tuesday morning. The worker also spoke about anxiety attacks and other physical symptoms that accompanied these events, which over a series of months, preceded more and more time off work.

"One in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by someone they know." (Image via iStock)

The employee explained they did not feel comfortable telling their boss. “Deeply embarrassing” was how they described it. But the lack of explanation they provided in relation to the situation, led to the employer concluding they did not deserve to be kept on.

This is not an unusual scenario, as anyone who has experienced or witnessed domestic violence will know. The statistics are staggering: On average, one woman a week is killed by her partner. Furthermore, one in three women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence by someone they know. And for many years, before the wider Australian population knew anything about Rosie Batty, we sat in silence and watched as women were regularly treated like second class citizens as the violence continued.

Slowly, over time, we have started to make noise and with this, demanded a better standard and response in our communities and our workplaces.

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One of the most recent noises was the Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence. Following an extensive inquiry over more than a year, the Royal Commission delivered a report to the Victorian Government, including more than 200 recommendations to address family violence. One recommendation was for the Victorian Government to lobby to amend the National Employment Standards in the Fair Work Act to include an entitlement to paid family violence leave for employees. The National Employment Standards are conditions of employment that apply as a minimum standard to most employees.

Having paid family violence leave is a vital key in addressing family violence. It allows women experiencing domestic violence to have time off work to attend medical appointments, or deal with police, or protect children, or attend court dates, or simply recover. It takes days to move house, or find a shelter to escape the violence. It provides time to deal with those short-term tasks of responding to domestic violence, but also ensures long-term financial stability.

"It’s the right thing to do." (Image via iStock)

Financial abuse is another form of domestic violence, and often women escaping violence will be left with little or no access to funds, and will often have a huge financial liability to ‘start over’. Gainful employment is, therefore, vital.

Employers benefit, too. Turnover adds extraordinary cost to a business, while keeping valued employees can provide peace of mind. It can also lead to more open and inclusive conversation between employers and staff. It can lead to recognition as an employer of choice and also prevents the need to defend unfair dismissal claims. And, it’s the right thing to do.

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But changing the minimum employment entitlements is just the beginning. The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) is campaigning to have paid domestic violence leave as part of our national award system. Australian Services Union (ASU) members in 2010 bargained with the Surf Coast Shire Council to have domestic violence leave enshrined in an enterprise agreement. As a result of union support, many employees now have domestic leave as an entitlement.

Equal opportunity legislation should also have a protection for domestic violence victims. Further, a study conducted by RMIT University and Our Watch identifies that employing organisations can be crucial to changing the culture of domestic violence altogether.

Workplace cultures that are gender-progressive with female leaders and strong cultures of anti-misogyny (such as zero tolerance to sexual harassment), can assist in preventing violence against women as well.

"Having paid family violence leave is a vital key in addressing family violence." (Image via iStock)

So in my mind, the time for prevarication is over. A Shorten Labor Government has committed to making domestic and family violence leave a universal workplace right if Labor gets into power. Let’s tell all parties running for election on July 2 to do the same. It is something that we should want for our family members, our neighbours and our community.

And if you don’t agree, perhaps it will change your mind to learn that it was actually a man giving evidence about domestic violence who was fighting to keep his job at the Fair Work Commission.

Kelly Thomas is an employment law Associate at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers’ Melbourne office.

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