“We just believe it’s another cost on our economy that will have an impact on our international competitiveness,” Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said in a Sky News interview earlier this week.
It was part of his explanation for why domestic violence leave is not something the government is “attracted” to.
Ahead of the commencement of the Fair Work Act 2009, I was part of a group of people involved in the marathon effort of Award modernisation.
It was a daunting task: Following a request from the-then Employment Minister Julia Gillard, every industry in Australia was to have its Award/s reviewed to ensure a fair and simple minimum safety net building in industry-specific details.
This meant the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, as it was then, ended up reducing more than 4,000 State and Federal Awards to a more manageable 122. We did this while the Fair Work Act was commencing. At the same time everyone involved– including the members of the Commission who sat in these matters - had their usual workload on, while the clock ticked down to the Modern Award start date of 1 January 2010.
A lot has changed since then. The Employment Minister who made the request went on to become the first woman to ever hold the office of Prime Minister, and now holds no elected office at all.
The AIRC is now the Fair Work Commission, after being Fair Work Australia for a time, and it has the task of presiding over the modern Award reviews required by the Act.
In that same time domestic violence incidents have risen and upwards of 250 women have been murdered by a violent partner.
The thread that draws these together is domestic violence leave, which is being argued before the Commission as part of the Modern Award review. The ACTU have sought to make it a ‘common issue’ matter, an entitlement that would then be included in the national industrial relations framework. If successful, it would form part of the safety net all workers are entitled to.
The same submission went on to argue, “There is no evidence in this matter that a lack of paid domestic violence leave entitlements prevents participation in the workforce and results in a form of social exclusion”.
This goes to the Modern Award objective at 134(1)(c ): “the need to promote social inclusion through increased workforce participation.” The Commission is required to review against the Modern Award objectives.
This employer position is a stretch. In 2009 it was estimated that violence against women and their children cost the economy 13.6 billion. Women risk poverty, debt, precarious accommodation, health, and employment when leaving relationships. The National Council to Reduce Violence Against Women estimates that without action, production related costs (which will be borne primarily by employers) will be $235 million in 2021-22. A further $172 million in costs will be borne by victims and survivors.
Employers have submitted the delightfully vague view that employers are willing to do something (unstated) to assist, but warn that pursuing an actual entitlement will risk employers having a negative view (presumably of women as employees) “when most employers would be willing participants in workable initiatives to address this community problem”. What these workable initiatives might be isn’t set out as an approach all businesses can adopt; examples are given of initiatives at individual employers.
One employer submission argued, “employers of course are in no way the cause of the problem of family violence or a contributor to it. With most community problems, the best way to facilitate employers playing a constructive role is to educate them and encourage their participation, not to impose heavy handed and inappropriate measures upon them”.
All this aside, some employers seem to be arguing that someone needs to do something about domestic violence, but it shouldn’t be them, or if it is, they are willing to do things that aren’t legally enforceable or apply to all employers.
This last fails the logic test; if you accept that domestic violence leave puts a business at some sort of competitive advantage, then doesn’t it make sense for every business to have it to level the playing field?
A number of women have testified before the Fair Work Commission and the ACTU has marshaled eminent experts in this matter, so the task before the Fair Work Commission is, do employers have some responsibility in this space? Do our workplaces need to deal with this most pressing of issues?
Domestic violence costs money. It kills women. On the coldest of measures, these are taxpayers taken out of the taxation pool and productive workers being made unproductive. Why not mitigate that if given the chance? And, failing a change to this in the Awards, how many employers will step up and make those corporate White Ribbon breakfast pledges concrete by granting leave?
Given the scale of the problem, up to 10 days leave (which even the employers concede won’t be used by everyone) seems a small, but useful, start.