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Domestic violence leave gains support, but let’s do it right

The vast majority of women who report having experienced domestic violence are in the workforce. Image sourced from

The Australian Labor Party has committed to five days paid domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards for all working Australians, a move the federal government says is “absolutely worth considering”.

The proposal is the latest development in a five-year campaign by domestic violence advocates and the trade union movement to standardise workplace support. The shift has been from an optional policy of support if you are lucky enough to have a good employer, to the understanding of domestic violence as an industrial issue affecting worker safety and productivity, which requires industrial solutions.

A recent survey of employers who have negotiated domestic violence clauses into their agreements found paid leave taken averaged two or three days, to make the critical and necessary steps at this time of crisis. Employers reported the clauses demonstrated support for their staff and a more positive work environment.

In another report prepared by KPMG, big businesses such as Telstra, Woolworths and Qantas came out in support of paid domestic violence leave. More recently there have been announcements of dedicated paid leave for public sector employees by a number of state governments.

In Geneva the International Labour Organisation has moved a step closer to an international labour standard that will include domestic violence with a commitment to an Experts Group meeting in 2016.

By June 2015, less than five years after the first domestic violence clause was negotiated, 860 workplace agreements had a domestic violence clause. With the inclusion of awards and public service directives and guidelines, it is estimated that over two million Australians now have access to rights at work if they are affected by domestic violence.

But while the momentum is strong, Australia is in real danger of only getting half the job done because good rights at work require good implementation into well supported workplaces. Bedding down a new industrial concept such as domestic violence leave needs more than a few years work (the Labor government funded a national project Safe at Home, Safe at Work from 2010-2013).

Let’s do it well

The headline grabbing provision of paid leave can cloud the fact that the model domestic violence clause is a package, carefully crafted to provide a range of support measures besides paid leave. These include confidentiality of employee details; workplace safety planning strategies: referral of employees to appropriate domestic violence support services; training for contact people in the workplace; flexible work arrangements; and no adverse action or discrimination on the victims of domestic violence.

Good implementation needs monitoring to ensure good model clauses are being negotiated; a national training and resource program to ensure workplaces have the skills to introduce the clauses well; and further research into emerging issues such as the impacts of the abusive employee. Australia now has none of these, and others are learning from our mistakes, the Canadians in particular. If we don’t finish the job properly to ensure good implementation then we risk losing our world leader status in the near future.

In a prosperous country like Australia, with 40 years experience of responding to domestic violence, we should be able to support those experiencing violence to stay safely in their homes and in their jobs. The vast majority of women who report having experienced domestic violence are in the workforce. Staying employed is critical to staying economically independent and surviving this crisis.

The expectation on employers is that they refer employees to experts for the advice and support they need. This means giving employees a clear message that they will be supported with a range of practical steps, that their jobs are safe, and that trained people at work can confidentially deal with their workplace issues.

The ALP proposal lifts the bar on this debate, and any good government should match it, but remember that good implementation is as necessary as good national employment standards.

The National Sexual Assault, Family & Domestic Violence Counselling Line – 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for any Australian who has experienced, or is at risk of, family and domestic violence and/or sexual assault.

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