Domestic violence continues to be a scourge on society despite being the subject of news headlines for years now. It’s clear that there is still a lack of understanding about the tremendous difficulties that women face when trying to escape abusive situations.
Often, people ask “why didn’t she just leave?” Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. It takes a lot of time, money and resources to set up a new life, especially if children are involved.
Two thirds of women who experience domestic violence are in paid work. Due to the current measly personal leave allowances in place, women experiencing domestic violence will have often used up their few days of paid leave very quickly.
Many are forced to take unpaid leave, which damages them financially. Some are unable to take leave at all for fear of losing their jobs due to unsympathetic employers.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) have been pushing for paid domestic violence leave to become mandatory.
Last July, the Fair Work Commission rejected the ACTU submission for 10 days paid leave to be enshrined in the National Employment Standards (NES). The Commission said their “preliminary view” was that 10 days of unpaid leave should be allowed in modern awards.
The ACTU push for paid domestic violence leave is to be welcomed, however it’s not without complications. Despite increased awareness, there is still a great deal of stigma attached to being a victim of domestic violence.
Many people don’t even tell their close friends and family what they’re going through. Raising the matter with your boss is often difficult, not least because people fear being sacked or discriminated against. There is also the risk that your employer will not respect your confidentiality.
While having domestic violence leave in the NES would be helpful, it would not automatically translate into being able to access it. Many employers already pressure workers to take as little personal leave as possible.
No doubt many bosses would attempt to discourage people from taking domestic violence leave as well. In addition, many would force them to provide evidence to prove their situation. This process is potentially humiliating and will put many women off asking for leave.
We believe that paid domestic violence leave should be able to be taken without question and without the need to provide proof. Contrary to what employers say, it is highly unlikely that people would seek to ‘take advantage’ of such an entitlement.
The burden currently placed on workers to prove that they need a day off is punitive and unnecessary. Workers should be able to take all of their paid personal leave days without evidence.
Whether we are sick, attending a funeral or fleeing a dangerous home environment, we should be able to take time off work without having to undergo intrusive questioning from employers.
Employers should be made to accept that paid domestic violence leave is a fundamental right. That said, getting it in the NES will likely require a bigger fight. All of our entitlements, including annual leave and sick leave, were won through struggle, often after workers went on strike.
Even once we get domestic violence leave enshrined as an entitlement our ability to access it unhindered will be linked to the strength of the union in the workplace. Strong unions, including the presence of workplace delegates and women’s officers, are necessary to ensure all our rights are adhered to.
Just as important as paid leave at the workplace are the broader questions facing women experiencing domestic violence. For example, what options are available for protection and support? Where are they to go?
The need for paid domestic violence leave goes hand in hand with the need for a huge funding boost for domestic violence services and public housing. At the moment women’s refuges are overflowing and there are tens of thousands of people on the public housing wait list. This often forces people to return to dangerous situations.
The union movement should link the demand for paid leave to the demand for extra investment into social services such as crisis hotlines and refuges. We also need public housing where those escaping violence are prioritised. Investing in these services would not only address a social need but it would create thousands of jobs.
The barrier to all of these solutions at the moment is the system that puts profits before all else. If we removed the profit motive, and began to prioritise people’s needs, dealing with the blight of domestic violence would be much easier.
By Kat Galea