Labor's committment to family and domestic violence leave

December 04, 2018

A trajectory was sweeping the union movement, not just here but worldwide, for the implementation of paid family and domestic violence leave, a trajectory that has brought us to this moment, a trajectory that is not yet finished by any stretch of the imagination. There is still so much to be done. Ludo McFerran began the Safe at Home, Safe at Work project and continued to work side by side with me and others in the union movement to pursue paid domestic violence leave; to ensure there are educated and informed workers, managers and employers; to destigmatise the issue within our society; and to protect and help people experiencing violence and survivors with practical, sensible effective measures. Ludo was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission's community award for her work pioneering policy on support systems to enable women and children to stay safe. I am proud to call Ludo McFerran a colleague and friend and I take this opportunity to thank her.

A couple of years after that fateful meeting at the university, I again attended a union meeting. This time, however, it was to celebrate the first ever enterprise bargain agreement clause allowing for 10 days paid domestic violence leave. This time it was with the mighty ASU in Victoria. They had successfully negotiated the leave with the Surf Coast Shire. Sharon Karyasa was one of the shire employees, a union delegate who helped negotiate the clause. She was a young and committed woman who had suffered terrible abuse at the hands of her partner. I first met Sharon at a union women's meeting in Geelong. I had been travelling the country promoting the ACTU's family and domestic violence clause, encouraging unions to include it in their bargaining, and Sharon heard me explain why I thought it was an important part of tackling the terrible scourge.

Sharon took it completely to heart. She discussed it with her ASU organiser, who supported her, and together they made it clear to the shire HR team that they wanted a paid family and domestic violence leave clause in the EBA. Sharon recalled to me later that at first the HR manager laughed out loud at her, derisively telling her and the organiser that they were dreaming. But Sharon was not giving up, and the ASU was standing with her. If that HR manager thought Sharon was dreaming then that dream became a reality. The Surf Coast Shire council became the first public sector employer in Australia to offer special paid leave of up to 20 days a year to employees who experienced domestic violence. The council eventually listened, and heard and recognised that employees sometimes face violence in their personal life which affects their work attendance and ultimately their performance. Surf Coast Shire CEO at that time, Mark Davies, said that they had agreed to the clause to ensure that the council was an employer of choice. He said at that time:

Including this family violence clause in Surf Coast Shire's new EBA is a socially progressive measure that shows our commitment to the wellbeing of all staff.

He went on to say:

The personal toll of domestic violence alone is unacceptable. It also poses a cost to employers and organisations. … The best way to reduce any costs is to ensure any staff suffering are supported.

ASU Victorian assistant branch secretary, Lisa Darmanin, said the paid leave would help survivors hold down stable jobs and maintain their career paths. I want to thank Lisa Darmanin and the ASU more broadly for being champions of promoting and implementing paid family and domestic violence leave. In particular, I would like to thank Linda White, the national assistant secretary, and Natalie Lang, the New South Wales branch secretary. They picked up the baton and pursued with vigour, along with other unions and the ACTU, the fight to have 10 days of paid domestic violence leave in the National Employment Standards, a measure I am proud to say that a Labor government will implement.

Family violence could interrupt women's lives, including their work, and keeping an income through such times is paramount to their wellbeing. The last thing someone trying to flee domestic violence needs is to lose their job and their economic independence. Research fairly and squarely shows that having a job and an income means far better outcomes than struggling without money. Two-thirds of family violence victims are employed, and direct costs to employers include absenteeism, staff turnover and lost productivity.

We knew that tackling family violence needed a multifaceted approach, including in the workplace. The Australian Council of Trade Unions Women's Committee took up the challenge with gusto and developed a domestic violence policy that was endorsed by the ACTU congress in 2012 and has led to domestic violence clauses being included as part of the standard claims by many unions. As a result of collective bargaining, millions of workers are now protected by paid domestic violence clauses across all industries, like retail, public transport, education, manufacturing, maritime, banking and finance, and the public sector.

Australian employers are increasingly prepared to negotiate these clauses, including companies like Carlton & United Breweries, Qantas, NAB, IKEA and Telstra. Most states now offer paid family and domestic violence leave to their public servants. In New Zealand, there is legislated paid leave that guarantees 10 days of leave for all workers experiencing violence who need to escape. With the advent of the Fair Work Commission's ruling, all awards now have unpaid leave. That is a disappointing outcome, like this bill, given the fact that paid leave is what is needed.

For the naysayers and doomsayers who abhorrently say this will be used to take sickies, I will repeat what the wonderful Rosie Batty said about that. She was with me once at a press conference when a journalist asked me that inevitable question. She elbowed me aside, leapt in front of the cameras and said, 'Do you think any woman would make up a story that she had been beaten and subjected to the pain and suffering of domestic violence just to get the day off? I don't think so.' I would like to take this opportunity to thank Rosie for the support she gave to the campaign for paid leave and her contribution to raising the bar on dealing with family and domestic violence. She is a champion. At any rate, most employers would be able to ask for some sort of proof of family violence from police, GPs, district nurses, lawyers or support agencies.

The bill offers unpaid leave for only five days. Fleeing domestic violence actually costs money. Research shows that escaping an abusive relationship costs $18,000 at least and takes 141 hours, almost all of which are during working hours. That's for things like going to court, dealing with estate agents or emergency services, attending doctors and counselling appointments, seeing a lawyer, moving house and talking to the kids' school teachers. It all takes time, and time is money. Finding that money and time can be hard. Just knowing that there is an avenue for you to talk to your employer about it, that there is no shame and that your employer can help by offering some much-needed leave with pay makes a huge difference. Everyone who has this leave is telling us just that. The testimonies are compelling.

Of course, learning that your employee is suffering from domestic violence can be challenging in itself, which is why it is necessary to ensure that a contact officer, human resource manager or line manager is trained to deal with people experiencing family violence in a confidential and respectful way. Such training must be delivered by experts in the area. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Sue Wilkinson and the Darebin City Council in my electorate for winning a prestigious WorkSafe award for their workplace training and management of domestic and family violence and for ensuring that their workers have access to 20 days of paid leave. Darebin City Council are amongst the hundreds of workplaces that offer paid leave to their employees. That is because they know that paid leave is vital for their employees' welfare but also because, as employers, it makes them an employer of choice and contributes their vital share of the complex solutions to the terrible problem of family and domestic violence. But we need paid leave in the National Employment Standards to cover all workers who are not able to bargain for it.

One vital part of this important journey, which began so many years ago, has been to take the issue of paid leave to the world. Just last year I had the honour of working with my international union sisters and brothers, along with Ludo McFerran and her international network, with international groups of employers and governments from right around the world to ensure that family and domestic violence leave was recognised by the International Labour Organization. I am so proud to say that our preliminary work was rewarded with recognition that the workplace is a vital part of that solution and that bargaining for leave is important. Other countries are now beginning to follow suit.

This bill does fall short, as it provides for only five days of unpaid leave. I'm proud to say that the best outcome for working women and men will be when a Shorten Labor government is elected and we legislate 10 days paid leave in the National Employment Standards, because, without paid leave, you can't leave.