Impact of domestic violence in the workplace: Joint Government of Australia/ILO side event at the 57th Session of the CSW

On 6 March 2013, new studies and evidence on impact of domestic violence in the workplace from three countries were presented by a four-person panel during the 57th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).

Ms Jane Hodges, ILO, introduced the speakers noting that the workplace was an important setting to address violence against women where prevention and remedial action could be developed. International Labour Conventions, particular C111, C169, C189 and R 200 all have specific references to gender-based violence at work, and ILO had a strong package of ‘how to’ tools in different sectors (e.g. health, services) to address the issue. The side event would focus on the spill over of domestic violence to workplaces.

Ms Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner from the Australian Human Rights Commission, welcomed the panel’s focus on violence against women as a workplace issue. She welcomed the recognition of gender-based violence against women as a form of discrimination against women, but said that, until recently, there has been limited discussion in Australia of domestic and family violence as a workplace issue. This is in spite of the fact that almost two-thirds of women affected by such violence are in some form of paid employment.

Commissioner Broderick discussed research that showed the clear health and economic costs of failing to address the immediate and long-term consequences of domestic and family violence properly. She noted that domestic and family violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years. She also noted that it is estimated that such violence will cost the Australian economy $15.6 billion by 2021-2022 unless effective action is taken. Commissioner Broderick further noted that the failure of workplaces to acknowledge or address domestic and family violence can compound the harms of such violence.

Commissioner Broderick welcomed the recent willingness of Australian employers, unions and governments to tackle the impacts of domestic and family violence in the workplace. Examples included: recognition of domestic and family violence as a workplace issue in Australia’s National Plan on violence; the introduction of domestic and family violence leave provisions in industrial agreements covering over one million workers; the introduction of workplace policies and support (e.g. flexible work arrangements); and a recent federal government announcement to extend the right to request flexible working arrangements to workers experiencing domestic and family violence.

Ms Ludo McFerran, Project Manager, Safe at Home, Safe at Work, Australia described the work of the project noting that the issue of domestic violence impacting work is considered as an industrial issue requiring industrial solutions. She pointed out that the majority of Australian women experiencing domestic and family violence are in paid employment. In order to address this, the project had entered into a number of dialogues with the unions about achieving domestic violence clauses through collective bargaining; with employers about the scale and cost of domestic violence to their workplaces and businesses and with government on introducing domestic violence into national employment, discrimination and occupational health legislation.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) Women’s Committee domestic violence policy 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 over one million workers are now protected by domestic violence clauses and 70% have access to paid leave, with 20 days being the most common provision in the retail, public transport, education, manufacturing, and maritime industries. Australian employers are increasingly prepared to negotiate these clauses or develop policies that reflect some of the best core principles of the clause including paid leave.

One important aspect is to evaluate the impact of the clauses being introduced. Findings have shown that there has been good awareness of the issue, with many now reporting of domestic violence, however that part time workers knew less about their rights. There was a need to have an information campaign targeting these workers.

Ms McFerran urged governments to include in national plans the role of the workplace, carry out surveys to gather evidence, include clauses in collective bargaining, re-examine legislative frameworks, carry out training and distribute information at workplaces.

Ms Julie White, Director of the Women’s Department of the Canadian Auto Workers union (CAW) opened by defining the membership of the CAW. Having grown from its initial makeup of 88,000 members predominantly in the auto, aerospace and transportation sectors in 1985, the CAW is now the largest private sector union in Canada, representing men and women in almost every sector of the economy with a membership of over 200,000 workers. Women represent nearly 34% of the membership.

Current statistics in Canada show that every six days on average, a woman is killed by her partner and more than 3,000 women (along with their 2,500 children) live in emergency shelters, having fled domestic violence. Many more women continue to suffer in silence.

The CAW has a rich history of support for community and workplace initiatives to end violence against women; however, following the tragic gender-based massacre of 14 female engineering students at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal in 1989, the CAW was driven to do even more. That tragedy became the catalyst for the creation of the CAW Women’s Advocate program. This referral program has specially trained workplace representatives – known as Women’s Advocates – who assist and support women experiencing harassment or intimate partner violence in their personal lives, either at home or in the workplace. In negotiations with employers to date, 262 Women’s Advocates are in place in every sector of the economy, and more importantly, hundreds of CAW women who have accessed the program have been supported, believed, validated and empowered. The program has been widely recognised, including by the ILO.

Ms White concluded by noting that the Women’s Advocate program cannot begin to address the root causes of gender-based violence in society – which is women’s economic, social and political inequality – but that the program (and the courage, dedication and commitment of the hundreds of Women’s Advocates) is saving lives.

Ms Elena Lattuada, Confederal Secretary of the CGIL (Italy), said that the union has launched a nationwide campaign on this issue under a general banner of “Violence against women is a defeat for all”, shown on the façade of all the 135 CGIL offices. In Italy existing penal mechanisms were not sufficient to reduce violence against women, as there were structural obstacles. Contrasting violence against women requires also a cultural change and the elimination of the sexist approach. According to the last surveys, in Italy 1.2 million women face violence in the workplace. Many cases go unreported as many women lack confidence to complain or feel shame, as a result in 82% of cases women do not speak to anyone and many dropped out of the workplace.

CGIL, together with the other trade unions, has negotiated provisions on sexual violence and mobbing in many national collective labour agreements defining the types of harassment and establishing actions aimed at ending harassment; defining the employers' obligations and implementing timely and impartial procedures of verification, ensuring confidentiality and equal opportunities committees; introducing codes of practices in some sectors of the civil service aimed at fighting harassment. Efforts were also being made at local government and municipal levels.

Following discussions Ms Hodges summed up the way forward which was multipronged: government leadership with legal frameworks; trade union and employer’s negotiating collective bargaining agreements; individuals accessing workplace advocates and counsellors; and the gathering of data based on questionnaires, interviews, surveys etc.

Following discussions Ms Hodges summed up the way forward which required a multipronged effort: government leadership with legal frameworks; trade union and employer’s negotiating collective bargaining agreements; individuals accessing workplace advocates and counsellors; and the gathering of data based on questionnaires, interviews, surveys etc.