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Violence against women is a workplace issue

Sex Discrimination

Impact of domestic violence in the workplace
ILO/Australian Government Side Event
Commission on the Status of Women, 57th Session,
UN Millennium Hotel

1-3pm, Wednesday, 6 March 2013



Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the International Labour Organization and the Australian Government for co-hosting this event for this 57th session of the UN Commission on Status of Women, and for inviting me to present here today.

Violence against women remains as prevalent as it was twenty years ago, when at the UN Conference on Human Rights in Vienna, women from around the world advocated for violence against women to be addressed as a human rights issue. Since then, it has been encouraging to see many positive measures being taken at the international level, the regional level, nationally and most importantly, in local communities to address the violence we see in our lives and communities.

However, while there has been an increased awareness of and response to violence against women, there are still areas where the impacts of violence against women are still not as well recognised – and one of those areas is workplaces. Which is why I am so pleased to see this event giving profile to the impacts of violence against women in the workplace.

There is now widespread recognition and understanding that violence against women is a form of discrimination and is a violation of women’s rights - and that there is an obligation on States to prevent and eliminate violence against women, including a duty to act with due diligence to prevent, investigate and punish violence committed by private actors.

However, in Australia when I talk to business and employers about violence against women, and particularly about domestic and family violence, the response I frequently get is that it is a private matter and that it is not an issue for workplaces.

It is often assumed that domestic and family violence and the workplace are mutually exclusive; that one has nothing to do with the other. It is thought that work is something that happens between the hours of 9am and 5pm, or thereabouts, and domestic and family violence occur outside those hours. – that a women’s entry into one world signals her safety in the other. Surely, we might say, a colleague or employee could not be experiencing violence in her home without us realising it?

But the statistics show that domestic and family violence does impact on workplaces.

An estimated 1.2 million women in Australia over the age of 15 have experienced domestic or family violence, usually at the hands of a male partner.[1]

Almost two-thirds of women affected by domestic and family violence are in some form of paid employment.[2] Based on Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates, this equates to around 800,000 women in Australian workplaces, who are experiencing domestic or family violence.
Add to this figure the number of male victims and survivors of domestic violence, the many individuals who do not report domestic violence and the perpetrators of violence, who are also in paid employment.

That so many individuals affected by domestic violence are in paid employment means that domestic violence is therefore very much a concern for workplaces.

Health and economic impacts of domestic violence

The health and economic costs of failing to properly address the immediate and long-term consequences of domestic and family violence—consequences that often manifest in the workplace, including related to discrimination—are of critical social importance.

Research undertaken by VicHealth shows that domestic and family violence is the leading contributor to death, disability and illness in women aged 15 to 44 years. It is responsible for more of the disease burden in women than many well-known risk factors, such as smoking and obesity.[3]

In addition to the health costs associated with domestic and family violence, there are also the costs to the Australian economy and to Australian businesses. It has been estimated that violence against women and children will cost the Australian economy $15.6 billion by 2021-2022 unless effective action is taken to prevent this violence.[4] However, the cost of productivity losses is expected to rise to $609 million by 2021-2022.[5] These losses or financial costs can result from ‘absenteeism and turnover, illness and accidents, disability or even death ... [and] decreased functionality and performance, quality of work and timely production’.[6]

In addition to the health and economic costs, is the fact that the failure by workplaces to acknowledge or address domestic violence can compound the harms of such violence.

Given that poverty – or fear of poverty – is a major reason for victims and survivors remaining in violent or abusive relationships, the support and security that a woman receives from an employer can often make the difference. As one survivor of domestic violence explains:

I’ve had to take large amounts of sick leave and, when that ran out, annual leave to deal with the effects of an abusive partner... The fear of losing my job made dealing with the emotional and legal issues even more stressful ... It would have been a huge help if I could have been upfront about what was going on...[7]

Addressing domestic and family violence as a workplace issue

In Australia however, we have started to see a real willingness to tackle the impacts of domestic and family violence in the workplace.

The Australian National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children specifically identifies as a key action the development of workplace measures to support women experiencing and escaping from domestic violence.

As you will hear from Ludo McFerran, of the Australian Domestic & Family Violence Clearinghouse, her project which is funded by the Australian Government has worked with unions and employers on introducing domestic violence workplace entitlements, such as leave, and introducing workplace policies and supports such as offering flexible work arrangements, creating workplace safety plans and personal safety plans and providing domestic violence support information through workplace training and induction.

And encouragingly, as of 2013, over 1 million workers in Australia are now able to avail themselves of leave and other protections made available through domestic violence clauses in their agreement or award conditions.[8]

There has also been encouraging recognition of the importance of enabling workers experiencing domestic and family violence to access flexible work arrangements. The Australian Government stated recently that it is looking to amend the National Employment Standards to extend the scope of the right to request flexible working arrangements to workers experiencing domestic violence.[9]

In addressing domestic and family violence as a workplace issue, we are starting to see among employers a recognition of the role they can play an important role in addressing this as a workplace issue.

Employers can play a vital role in recognising violent behaviour and facilitating crucial change.

In Australia, a Four Corners episode called ‘Changing Men’ documented the journey of three men as they undertook a program to address their violent behaviour.[10]

For two of them, the event triggering their inclusion in the program was not that they were violent at home, though this was certainly the case, but that their aggression was spilling over into the workplace. Their employers told these men that if their behaviour towards their co-workers did not change, they would be fired.

Such leadership would not only have a positive impact on the workplace but also have likely flow on effects in the home. This is, of course, in addition to any steps that need to occur within the context of legal proceedings.

Employers can also play a broader educative role, increasing their own and their employees’ understanding about domestic violence.

Education and training that identifies domestic violence as a workplace issue and equips workplaces to respond effectively can offer pathways out of violence for those experiencing it.
Last year, I made on this subject in Sydney. The next day I had a call from a woman I had known for many years who is a senior manager for a large bank.

She said that, following my speech, she had called her staff together and told them that she wanted to talk about domestic violence, the prevalence data and what it means for business.
She started, however, by recounting her own story – a story she’d never told before. The story of growing up in a violent household, of wiping the blood off her mother’s face, or taking her to hospital – of the shame and silence. She concluded by asking her staff to tell this story to everybody in the bank, hoping that it would make it easier for others to tell theirs.
Such a simple and courageous step may well have made the difference to an employee anxious about explaining an absence, seeking safe options at work or even contemplating seeking help to leave a relationship.

Domestic violence as a ground of discrimination

The Commission's focus has been to supplement these employment mechanisms by canvassing the prospect of recognising domestic and family violence as a separate ground within Australia’s anti-discrimination law framework. Such recognition could:

  • offer victims and survivors of domestic and family violence an additional legal remedy;
  • ensure accountability; and
  • educate employers and service providers about the indicators and impacts of domestic and family violence.

Although discrimination takes many forms, research suggests that it is common for victims and survivors of domestic and family violence to:

  • be denied leave or flexible work arrangements to attend to violence-related matters, such as attending court or moving into a shelter;
  • have their employment terminated for violence-related reasons, including a drop in performance or attendance occasioned by domestic or family violence;
  • be transferred or demoted for reasons related to violence.

Such discrimination which, when experienced, can compound the harm of the original acts of violence.
Let me share with you Jean’s story, which explains how this discrimination can manifest:

Jean had worked for 2 months and in that time had been promoted to Manager. Her husband had come in to the workplace one day and caused problems. After another incident at home she rang her boss to say she would be in a bit late as she was at the police station reporting a domestic violence incident and had been delayed. He sacked her as he said she was just ‘too difficult’.

Unfortunately it is not just in the workplace that victims and survivors experience discrimination, but also in other areas of life, such as in the provision of services and access to housing.

Victims and survivors may be denied access to housing where it is known that they are in a violent situation, or they may be evicted from housing because of the abusive and threatening behaviour of their partner.
Recognising domestic and family violence in anti-discrimination laws can help to strengthen the protection available to victims and survivors. It also complements workplace-based strategies for addressing domestic and family violence, notably inclusion of domestic and family violence clauses in collective agreements, especially in situations where workplace entitlements have been exhausted.

Finally prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of domestic and family violence can play an educative function by revealing this harmful form of discrimination and human rights violation and highlighting its impact on the individual and its implications in employment.

Domestic and family violence is, regrettably, fast becoming a crisis in many of our countries. If we are to succeed in addressing this crisis, we need to tackle it from every angle, including in the workplace. This will require employers, unions, government and communities all playing a role in addressing the impacts of domestic violence.

Thank you

[1] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Table: ‘Experience of Female Victims of Violence’, 2 March 2011 (based on Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Catalogue No. 4906.0 (2006), unpublished.
[2] Australian Bureau of Statistics, Personal Safety, Australia, 2005 (Reissue), Cat. No. 4906.0, 35. At: (viewed 12 October 2011).
[3] VicHealth, The Health Costs of Violence: Measuring the burden of disease caused by intimate partner violence (2004) p8.
[4] National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, The Cost of Violence Against Women and Their Children (March 2009), p4.
[5] National Council to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children, The Cost of Violence Against Women and Their Children (March 2009), pp45-46.
[6] Adrienne Cruz and Sabine Klinger, Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work: Overview and Selected Bibliography, International Labour Office, Working Paper 3/2011 (2011), p13.
[7] Anonymous survivor of family violence, cited in Australian Services Union, Family Violence is a Workplace Issue (2011), p13.
[8] Ludo McFerran, Safe at Home, Safe At Work Project, Australian Domestic and Family Violence Clearing House, UNSW, ‘When domestic violence becomes a workplace problem’, ABC The Drum Opinion 13 February 2013. At (viewed 8 April 2013).
[9] Australian Government, ‘Fair Work Act amendment broadens right to request workplace flexibility’, 13 February 2013. At (viewed 28 February 2013).
[10] Changing Men, Four Corners, Reporter Janine Cohen, Broadcast 25 February 2008. At: (viewed 11 October 2012).

Elizabeth Broderick, Sex Discrimination Commissioner