DOMESTIC VIOLENCE: ITS TIME EMPLOYERS STOOD UP

Unite member and FSU Official Mandy La Combre provides a guest blog this week on how domestic violence relates to work places and the policies needed to give protection to workers suffering abuse by domestic violence.

Mandy La Combre FSU & ICTU Women’s Committee

The Irish Government ratified the Istanbul Convention in 2019. Amid much publicity we were told that the ‘Council of Europe Convention on Preventing Violence against Women and Domestic Violence’ was a significant step forward. And so it should have been. The purpose of the Convention is to set out a comprehensive framework of policies and measures to ensure the ‘protection of women from all forms of violence, and prevent, prosecute and eliminate violence against women and domestic violence’. On International Women’s Day of the same year Taoiseach Leo Varadkar famously announced that he was calling for an end to the ‘epidemic’ of violence against women.

Ireland has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces than the convention requires.

Yet, since 2019, figures for violence against women, and domestic violence statistics have risen dramatically. Statistics show that Women’s Aid had 19,258 disclosures in 2019, and in 2020 calls were up 43%. Alarmingly Ireland has less than one third of the number of refuge spaces that the Convention requires. 1 in 4 women now experience domestic abuse in Ireland and, according to the World Health Organisation, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of domestic abuse in their lifetime. The over reliance on outreach and charitable services provides cover for government delays to follow up on the Convention and their commitment.  

As reported cases spiked heavily during the Covid-19 pandemic Sinn Fein’s ‘Organisation of Working Time (Domestic Violence Leave) Bill 2019’ gained cross party support. The bill provides for legislative proposals for the establishment of a statutory entitlement to 10 days paid domestic violence leave. This is a significant step forward in not only highlighting the challenges workers in abusive situations at home face, but also in attempting to eradicate the stigma surrounding domestic violence in the workplace. The Bill will be brought forward by the end of 2021. As a trade unionist active in this area however I believe that, while the 10 days leave is extremely important and having it legislated for is absolutely warranted, on its own and without robust workplace policies it could well see little take up. This is why it is essential that domestic violence workplace policies must be a serious focus for all unions in all sectors.

But what about employers?

Equality Minister Roderic O’Gorman’s Department has met with ICTU to discuss the need to marry good domestic violence workplace policies with the 10-day statutory entitlement. This move was most welcome. ICTU affiliates and members of the ICTU Women’s Committee were afforded the opportunity to put forward our case in this regard. However, at an ICTU seminar about the Bill this year the Minister stated ‘I am seeking the views and advice of employers groups regarding the potential impact of such leave and how the proposals could be implemented in a manner that would mitigate any potentially negative impacts on business.’

This is worrying. Safety and wellbeing is the absolute priority here and, as such, unions should be ensuring that we do not fail our members at this vital juncture. ICTU’s strong submission to the Department points out that the EU Fundamental Rights Agency, who provide data for Ireland on domestic abuse disaggregated by employment status, shows that 31% of employed women have experienced some form of violence by a partner since age 15 years. That is a staggering finding.

This Summer also saw the consultation commence on the ‘Third National Strategy on Domestic, Sexual and Gender based Violence’, an important piece of work steered by the Department of Justice (DOJ), partnering with Safe Ireland and the National Women’s Council of Ireland. The strategy is to be published by year end and will be a living document aimed at addressing the needs of victims, holding perpetrators to account and changing societal attitudes. The Department itself recognises the failure of the previous strategies and hope that the third strategy has a more successful implementation. Unions hope so too and we must demand that the necessary Government resources are allocated this time.

As part of the consultation process with ICTU a small group of us met with the DOJ and put forward suggestions from a worker’s point of view. We addressed the Istanbul Convention, sexual harassment in the workplace, ILO Convention 190, and domestic violence workplace policies. It is important that we continually emphasise to Government the importance of holding employers accountable on all equality issues. We must also demand that Government agencies encourage employers to be more amenable when Unions seek agreement on implementing new policies to support vulnerable workers.

When a worker is living with domestic violence there are very real negative impacts that flow into the workplace.

So why do we need domestic violence workplace policies?

One would assume with all the fanfare from Government on their ‘strong equality agenda’, that employers would be encouraged to line up to do the right thing but, unfortunately, it has been difficult to get employers to listen.

In 2014 ICTU launched a landmark all-Ireland on-line survey on people’s experience of domestic violence and the workplace. The findings were remarkable:

  • 82% of respondents were women
  • 75% of those abused women were targeted in the workplace
  • 53% missed at least 3 days of work a month
  • 94.4% said they thought domestic violence can have an impact on the lives of working people.

When a worker is living with domestic violence there are very real negative impacts that flow into the workplace. The survey results highlighted many of these issues; increased sick days, lower productivity, low morale, impacts on relationships with co-workers, and of course health and safety itself.  

Since 2014 ICTU have been advocating for domestic violence workplace policies to be introduced in all workplaces yet it still remains difficult to convince employers that it is indeed a workplace issue. But with domestic violence highlighted so much over the last year, as reported figures soared during the Covid pandemic and with the increase in homeworking, employers can no longer use ignorance as an excuse.

The pervasiveness and severity of domestic violence impacting the workplace demands the attention of employers, yet employers may be reluctant to dig into employees’ personal lives.  However, through providing support for abused employees and having a policy in place an employee knows that an employer is aware of the issue, can provide training for the workforce, and most importantly can direct victims to resources. Employers are not expected to be experts but they should be cognisant of the fact that sometimes the workplace is the only avenue of respite that a victim has. The workplace is often a place of refuge and safety for someone living with abuse. Perhaps the only one.

Equally domestic violence has no boundaries and often doesn’t ‘stay at home’. We know many abusers also target their victims in the workplace in various ways. Sometimes harassment can be by phone or email, through stalking on the way to and from work, by physically preventing a victim from going to work or even showing up at the workplace. Co-workers have also been threatened. Once employers understand that domestic violence can impact their workplace the real policy work begins. Any program’s success will depend on its integration into the company’s culture and business practices. Notably it has been private sector unions and employers that are leading the way in securing policies.

Recent policies have been agreed by the Financial Services Union and the Communication Workers Union in both the finance and communications sectors. These policies include provision for a number of significant practical support measures including:

  • Proper information and education on the subject
  • Access to confidential and independent counselling services paid by the employer
  • No negative actions for ‘excessive absences’ in sick leave policies
  • No negative actions for under performance with victims/survivors
  • Special paid leave (minimum 10 days)
  • Paid time off for visits to support agencies, Solicitors, court hearings, re-housing needs or childcare issues
  • Flexible working arrangements
  • Temporary or permanent changes in location / work times / front facing public roles
  • Diverting phone or email
  • Salary advancement if an employee is escaping a violent situation or suffering financial abuse
  • Ensuring the victim/survivor never works alone if that is what they request
  • Proper security procedures in place should a perpetrator show up at the workplace
  • Procedures for dealing with perpetrators in the workplace
  • List of support services
  • Commitment to confidentiality

It is important that any policy is not just a ‘paper policy’ and is backed up by a proper support system with specialist training and safety planning.

These workplace policies are crucial because losing a job can often mean losing a way out.

Research shows that women with a history of domestic violence are more likely to have lower personal incomes due to a disrupted work history. They may have to change jobs more often or be employed in casual or precarious employment. Keeping a job is a key pathway to leaving violent relationships. Being in work is often the only time a person being abused has the freedom and capacity to plan their escape without their abusers knowledge. The ICTU survey revealed how rarely those experiencing domestic violence disclose it to anyone in work but having a policy in place that addresses domestic violence breaks the stigma and shows workers experiencing violence that they are not alone.

Minister O’Gorman described the issue as ‘a multifaceted problem that requires all arms of the State to work together to address the issue and support those who are experiencing such violence’. He is right.

It is time for employers to step up.

Unite member and FSU Official Mandy La Combre provides a guest blog this week on how domestic violence relates to work places and the policies needed to give protection to workers suffering abuse by domestic violence.

Need help? Support is available: 

  • The 24/7 National Freephone Helpline for Women’s Aid is 1800 341 900. There is an online chat service on womensaid.ie operating mornings and evenings and a text service for people who are deaf and hard of hearing on 087 959 7980.
  • SafeIreland.ie offers a list of 38 domestic abuse services in towns across Ireland.
  • For urgent assistance, call An Garda Síochána on 999 or 112.

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