By Sarah Hort
In news that may have escaped your attention thanks to extensive coverage of lengthy airport queues, NSW Labor voted at their conference last weekend to increase the party’s policy on paid domestic violence leave from 5 to 10 days per year.
If Federal Labor were to endorse the policy and win government, paid domestic violence leave may be enshrined in legislation and the National Employment Standards, like annual leave and sick leave.
While some major employers such as Telstra, IKEA and NAB already offer employees paid domestic violence leave, for most Australian workers, there is no entitlement. That leaves many facing domestic violence crises in a precarious position. There’s no automatic right to unpaid domestic violence leave either (that question is currently being considered by the Fair Work Commission); and even if there was, unpaid leave isn’t good enough. If someone is, for example, leaving a violent situation and facing the consequent costs of moving house or relocating, paid leave is necessary, in the same way you still rely on being paid when you take sick leave or annual leave.
The paid domestic violence leave debate has been raging for some time now, with opponents claiming that the cost for employers would be exorbitant. It should be kept in mind, however, that most employees will probably never take domestic violence leave.
In the eight months to July 2015, only 17 Telstra employees accessed domestic violence leave, taking a total of 45 days leave. One might argue that this suggests that paid domestic violence leave is unnecessary because the uptake has so far been minimal, however as domestic violence leave entitlements increase, people will face less stigma and be less fearful about accessing it. Not to mention that Australian Unions has estimated the cost of domestic violence leave at five cents per worker, per day.
And for the employees who did take those 45 days of leave? That could have saved their lives. That’s worth more than any monetary value we could ascribe to domestic violence leave, let alone the tiny amount per worker it’s currently estimated to cost employers.
Another economic counterpoint is that the effects of domestic violence already cost the Australian economy billions of dollars each year (White Ribbon estimated the cost of domestic violence at $13.6 billion in 2008/09 alone). Why spend more? If victims are encouraged to leave violent situations or seek help, and are given the necessary resources to do so (such as domestic violence leave), we may see a reduction in both the financial and social costs of domestic leave.
Others argue that existing personal (sick) leave entitlements are sufficient to cover incidents of domestic violence (and associated events such as court appointments, legal appointments, and time spent with police and other authorities). In the same way that people are not expected to take annual leave when they are sick (because sick leave is treated separately), people should not be expected to use sick leave when they are victims of crime.
Not only is the language of being “sick” when one is actually a victim of crime problematic, but this scenario eats into employees’ sick leave, potentially forcing them to work when they’re actually unwell. Put simply, if we do not expect employees to take annual leave when they are sick, why should we expect them to take annual leave or sick leave when they are experiencing a domestic violence crisis?
Finally, there are those who fear that people may rort the system and falsely take domestic violence leave. The Telstra situation referenced above is a good example of this being unlikely. Of course, just as people are required to submit a medical certificate when accessing sick leave, employers can require employees to submit proof of need for domestic violence leave in the form of a letter from a lawyer, police, doctor or other professional.
Ultimately, this boils down to saving people’s lives.
One woman dies each week at the hands of a current or former partner. The effects of domestic violence on men and children are also horrific.
Five cents per worker, per day: if adding up those five cent coins means the boss plays one less round of golf each year, so be it.
Australian Unions has launched a petition addressed to Malcolm Turnbull on the issue of domestic violence leave. You can find it here.