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  • James Judge

Family and domestic violence – some workplace responses by Government agencies

How Government agencies are approaching family and domestic violence and its impact upon the workplace differs across jurisdictions. First published in The Mandarin – James Judge considers some of these responses and looks at the issue of the desirability of distinct leave provisions to assist impacted employees.

Family and domestic violence is a significant and pernicious problem across Australia. Although its incidence brooks no boundaries of social status or class, women and children are overwhelmingly the victims (or targets) of this form of violence.

There is a lot of compelling data on related issues like homelessness, hospital admissions, and information from the criminal justice system that point to the pervasiveness of the problem. A study by VicHealth in 2004 revealed that intimate partner violence is responsible for more ill-health and premature death in Victorian women under the age of 45 than any of the well-known risk factors, such as high blood pressure, obesity and smoking.  Much of this information has been collected on a state by state basis and one of the historical challenges in the field has been the lack of consistent definitions.

What is family and domestic violence?

Terms like ‘domestic violence’, ‘family violence’, ‘domestic and family violence’ and ‘domestic abuse’ or ‘intimate partner violence’ are used across different jurisdictions and in different contexts. The well known charity White Ribbon uses the term ‘violence against women.’ This definition comes from the UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and covers “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

The term ‘family violence’ is now increasingly being employed by many as a broader concept (and is preferred by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities). It refers not only to violence between intimate partners but also to violence between family members. The definition of family violence under the Family Law Act was expanded in 2011 to incorporate notions of coercion and control (not always accompanied by physical violence or threats). As of May 1 this year, the new Family Violence Act  in the ACT now also employs a definition that specifically includes emotional or psychological abuse, as well as economic abuse by a family member, as thinking on the issue evolves.

The only consistent national survey on domestic and family violence is the Australian Bureau of Statistics Personal Safety Survey (PSS). Last conducted in 2012, the PSS revealed that around one in three women in Australia has experienced physical violence, and almost one in five has experienced sexual violence, since the age of 15. It’s highly likely that these figures do not represent the true extent of the problem as the PSS measures victims, not incidents, and other data shows that 65% of men and women experienced more than one incident of violence.

The Australian Institute of Criminology reports that females are overwhelmingly the victims in intimate partner homicides (79%). Their latest published data actually shows the number of female, intimate partner homicide victims increasing from 83 in 2010-12 to 99 in 2013-14. The situation for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women can only be described as shocking. They are 35 times more likely than other women to be hospitalised due to family violence assaults, five times more likely to experience physical violence and three times as likely to be victims of sexual violence.

Addressing complex problems

In an effort to address issues relating to both domestic violence and sexual assault in a more coordinated way — in 2011, the Council of Australian Governments endorsed the National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and Children 2010–2022.

The National Plan represents a 12-year strategy, staged in four year cycles, to attempt to drive generational and attitudinal changes. It has made some significant advances, such as establishing Australia’s National Research Organisation for Women’s Safety (ANROWS) and launching a national telephone and online counselling service for women experiencing, or at risk of abuse (1800RESPECT) but has also come under some criticism. Some have argued that front line domestic and family violence services remain under-resourced and a number of Indigenous women leaders have been critical of the direction of the third and latest stage of the National Plan.

While the Commonwealth funds overarching programs designed to reduce domestic violence (like the $30 million Stop it at the Start campaign launched last year) it’s left to state and territory governments to provide primary services, doing the heavy lifting for those seeking assistance and in policing domestic violence.

The Parliamentary Library provides an excellent guide to what is happening on a jurisdiction by jurisdiction level. It’s clear that Victoria has really taken on the challenge in a significant and coordinated way, committing $1.9 billion in May to implement the 227 recommendations of last year’s Royal Commission into Family Violence.

Is family and domestic violence a workplace issue?

There's no doubt that family violence has a significant impact upon economic productivity. A report last year by KPMG estimated that the cost of violence against women and their children to the Australian economy was $22 billion in 2015-16. Data from the PSS has the ABS estimate that between 55% and 70% of women who have experienced violence, or are currently experiencing violence, are currently in the workforce.

A National Domestic Violence and the Workplace Survey in 2011 found that nearly a third of respondents (30%) had personally experienced domestic violence. Half of those reporting experiencing such violence said it had affected their ability to get to work. Other findings include:

  • One in five (19%) experiencing domestic violence in the previous 12 months reported that the violence continued at work.

  • The major form of harassment was abusive phone calls and emails (12%) and the partner physically coming to work (11%).

  • The main reported impact was on performance, with 16% reporting being distracted, tired or unwell, 10% needing to take time off, and 7% being late for work.

From a straightforward health and safety perspective, the issue is one that modern workplaces need to be considering. For many experiencing family violence, work serves as a space away from the abuser and may give them an avenue to escape isolation and economic abuse. Workplaces also have a role in addressing the underlying causes of violence, promoting gender equality and challenging the attitudes that contribute to the problem.

“Work can serve as a space away from the abuser and may give them an avenue to escape isolation and economic abuse.”

Some government agencies have chosen to undertake White Ribbon’s workplace accreditation program as way to promote respectful behaviours and support employees affected by family violence. This includes the Australian Army, the RAN and RAAF as well as some individual agencies at the Federal level. Queensland has made a concerted effort here with three departments already accredited and 13 more in the process of becoming so. As part of the Taking a Stand: Responding to Domestic Violence policy, there is a requirement for all SA government departments to obtain White Ribbon Workplace accreditation. In the ACT the Community Services Directorate is accredited and the Environment, Planning and Sustainable Development Directorate is going through that process currently.

What entitlements do public servants have?

As of last week, WA public servants now have access to 10 days paid domestic and family violence leave. ACT public servants have had leave of up to 20 days per year for domestic violence purposes included in their enterprise agreement since 2013. Victorian public servants covered by the VPS EBA can also access up to 20 days paid family violence leave. In Queensland, state public servants have had access to 10 days leave entitlement since 2015.  SA took the middle ground here and offers an additional 15 days special leave with pay in a 12-month period.

In terms of Commonwealth agencies, only a tiny handful have domestic violence leave provisions in their enterprise agreements. These agencies (such as Workplace Gender Equality Agency, the Department of Employment and the Department of Education) had these kinds of leave provisions in agreements negotiated before the current round of enterprise bargaining. While the CPSU included it in their statement of claim for this round of bargaining, agencies were apparently blocked from adding it to new agreements on the basis that it was an ‘enhancement’.

While some state premiers have pushed for a mandatory national standard of 10 days paid domestic violence leave, Finance Minister Mathias Cormann responded by saying that such a move would be “… another cost on our economy that will have an impact on our international competitiveness.” Jim Stanford, from the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute, published a paper analysing this claim and found it lacked credibility.

He pointed out that incremental wage payouts to workers for such leave would be modest — in the order of $80-$120 million per year for the whole economy. Those incremental wage payouts are equivalent to less than 0.02% existing payrolls with any costs to employers likely to be largely or completely offset by benefits to employers – including reduced turnover and improved productivity.

Given the large cost of domestic violence to all sectors of society, a small reduction of even 1% in the incidence of domestic violence resulting from the expansion of paid domestic violence leave (and complementary workplace measures) would “… generate broader economic benefits that exceed the incremental costs”.

While such leave provisions could be a good idea, policies of this kind aren’t always working. New research released by the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI) last month appears to indicate that Australian workplace domestic violence policies don’t translate into practice.

What else can workplaces be doing?

One of the problems is that unless workplaces take measures to promote disclosure, and managers are comfortable having conversations of this nature, the stigma already involved in revealing incidence of family violence are unlikely to dissipate. 

Of over 1ooo HR professionals from private and public-sector organisations polled in the AHRI survey “… only 14% of respondents currently report any form of specific training for supervisors and managers to help victims disclose domestic violence, and only 18% have any form of manager training to recognise victims of domestic violence.” 

On a more positive note, out of all those surveyed, only five respondents were of the view that domestic violence is not a matter of relevance to employers.

Whether or not we see domestic violence leave provisions extended more widely, unless agencies have coherent policies, take active measures to promote disclosure and provide critical support and training to build confidence in managers to conduct discussions, it is likely that leave provisions will remain largely un-accessed.

Do you need help?

If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic and family violence or sexual assault, get help by calling:

  • 000 If you, a child, or another person is in immediate danger

  • 1800 RESPECT – 1800 737 732

  • Lifeline – 13 11 14

  • Relationships Australia – 1300 364 277

  • Mensline – 1300 789 978

Send us a message or call to book a session to help your managers or HR team build capability and confidence to deal with these issues in the workplace.


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