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Education and Employment Legislation Committee

DI MEZZA, Mrs Sonia, Research Officer, Catholic Women's League of Australia

ZIRNSAK, Dr Mark, Senior Social Justice Advocate, Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania

Evidence from Dr Zirnsak was taken via tele conference


CHAIR: Welcome. I understand that information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Can you please confirm that?

Mrs Di Mezza : Yes, I've received it.

Dr Zirnsak : Yes.

CHAIR: Great. I would like to invite you both to make an opening statement, and then we will ask you some questions.

Mrs Di Mezza : The Catholic Women's League of Australia is the national peak body representing the league's six member organisations located throughout Australia. Addressing social justice and human rights issues is one of our primary tasks. We seek to influence legislative and administrative bodies at all levels in order to preserve the dignity of the human person. We strive to be a voice for the voiceless.

According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, approximately one woman is killed by her current or former partner every week in Australia, often after a history of domestic and family violence. Thirty-four per cent of women have experienced physical violence since the age of 15; 17 per cent of women have experienced violence from a current or former partner since the age of 15; and 30 per cent of respondents to a 2011 survey on domestic and family violence and the workplace reported that they had experienced violence, while five per cent of those respondents had experienced violence in the last 12 months.

Within the population of women who have experienced violence or are currently experiencing violence, the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that between 55 per cent and 70 per cent are currently in the workforce. That is approximately 800,000 women, or around one in six female workers. This means that a significant number of Australian workplaces will be impacted by women's experiences of domestic and family violence. Research into workplace implications of domestic and family violence has demonstrated how such violence can undermine the working lives of both victims and survivors.

The 2011 National Domestic Violence and the Workplace Survey found that nearly half of the respondents who reported experiencing domestic and family violence said that violence had affected their ability to get to work. The main impact of violence was on work performance. Sixteen per cent of victims and survivors reported being distracted, tired or unwell, and 10 per cent needed to take time off work. Further, women who experience domestic and family violence are also more likely to have lower personal incomes, to have a disruptive work history and to have to change jobs at short notice, and are very often employed in casual or part-time work.

In order to be able to deal with the repercussions of family and domestic violence, survivors need to be able to reorganise their lives. This includes meeting with lawyers, court appearances, attending counselling sessions and finding appropriate accommodation. This all requires lots of time and flexibility. What survivors do not need is the risk of losing their job for not being able to attend work. At this time of need, survivors need the reassurance of being able to continue to earn an income while being able to attend the various appointments that may arise as a result of what they are going through.

To better control the victim, in particular to stop them from leaving, abusers will sometimes try to sabotage their professional life by harassing them on the job, keeping them up all night so that they're exhausted the next day or tampering with child care plans. The goal is often to make the survivor dependent on the abuser. Abusers often withhold money from victims or restrict access to any joint bank accounts so that, when they leave, they leave without savings. The money a victim makes on the job is almost always essential to their ability to successfully build a new life. It gives survivors choices, whether they decide to stay with the abuser or leave.

By passing this legislation, we will be showing survivors that the Australian government and community cares about them, and that they are believed and supported. The abusers in this country will get the message: with the five days leave, it will be harder for the survivor to remain within his or her control. I asked someone I knew who had experienced domestic and family violence in her younger years whether having five days leave from work would have made a difference in her life. She said that it would have absolutely made a positive difference in her situation. Firstly, knowing that she had that job security would have given her more peace of mind, with not having to worry that she would lose her job if she took too much time off work. It would have provided her with more time to organise her life, to secure safe accommodation so that she could flee from her ex-partner and to participate in the necessary legal proceedings. She also added that such leave would have made her feel supported by her employers, knowing that they had her back and supported her in her most difficult times.

We believe this is a human rights issue and that all people have the right to be protected from suffering any form of domestic and family violence. Although the United Nations' Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women does not explicitly mention domestic violence, the committee has, nevertheless, interpreted the convention's provisions in such a manner as to bring this issue within its scope. The UN human rights bodies have made a wide range of statements on the issue of domestic violence and have thus placed a broad range of obligations on states in regard to this area. Australia's a signatory to this convention.

I would like to take this opportunity to applaud those employers around Australia who are already providing this leave in their work agreements. This is a step in the right direction towards every single employer in this country having the same arrangements in place. It is only fair. If we are to truly become a society where we want to eradicate the existence of family and domestic violence then this is a positive step in the right direction.

We agree that the leave offered by this bill should not be made available to any person who is a perpetrator of family and domestic violence. To make it otherwise would, in essence, defeat the fundamental objective of this bill, which is to provide protection and safety to survivors of domestic and family violence. Furthermore, we are appreciative that the proposed bill offers five days leave that can be applied for each year and not just as a one-off experience. This recognises that family and domestic violence is not a situation that can be solved overnight but takes time and effort to seek appropriate and long-lasting solutions. In an ideal world, it would be great if this leave could be paid leave, the way other types of leave are paid.

On behalf of the Catholic Women's League of Australia, we want to thank those responsible for the creation of this bill. We fully support it and remain hopeful that it will make a meaningful difference in the lives of the people in this country who suffer from domestic violence. Furthermore, we sincerely hope that it will become law in this country in the very near future. Thank you.

Dr Zirnsak : Thank you for this opportunity to appear before the committee. From the Uniting Church's point of view, and particularly from our synod's point of view, family violence has been an issue of significant concern to our members. Each year we survey our active social justice members as to what are the issues they most want to engage on, and family violence has appeared in the top 10 for the last few years, so it is of significant concern. Both our recent assembly meeting and our synod meeting passed resolutions on family violence as an issue of particular concern to the overall broad membership of the church. As highlighted in our submission, our synod within our employment agreement already provides 20 days paid family violence leave. That's been in place since 2015. At this stage, nobody has accessed that requirement, which shows the low level of cost that employers would probably experience in providing paid leave. We do note there are other submissions from much larger employers that show very low levels of usage of the leave, but it is having a positive impact for those needing to access it.

We do see the bill as a step forward, but, as indicated, would have preferred to see paid leave consistent with our own employment practice. In terms of the bill itself, we do have some suggestions for some amendments. It would be helpful if the bill actually specified that it doesn't, in any way, prohibit an employer from offering paid family violence leave. I think it's not excluded in there, but to have an explicit statement, we think, would be helpful. We are concerned about the need for an employee to have to provide the employer with evidence that it would be impractical for them to undertake the activity that they need to undertake outside working hours in order to access the leave. We think that potentially opens up a barrier to people accessing the leave that, in our minds, would appear unnecessary. Our experience would tend to suggest that people are only going to access this leave when they absolutely need to and have to. For many people, they're not going to want to approach their employer unless they really do have to. So to then put a further barrier and a further disincentive—by them having to show, somehow, that it's impractical for them to do the activity in question outside working hours—appears an unnecessary barrier.

We would have been keen to see a broader definition of 'family violence'—and we give an example there—particularly for the purpose of ensuring that, where a person has dependants and those dependants are being subjected to family violence while the employee themselves is not, they're able to access that family violence leave. That would be consistent with our reading of legislation in other jurisdictions; I am particularly referring here to New Zealand. In that vein, we note the concerns raised by the ACTU about whether the current definitions in the bill would catch a situation where a person is being subjected to family violence by a current de facto partner but is not resident with them, and whether the bill would actually allow a person to seek the family violence leave in that situation. We think that if that is a problem then that problem does need to be addressed. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you both very much for appearing today. Obviously, family and domestic violence takes a terrible toll in our community and that toll falls disproportionately on women. To summarise your position, you support the legislation in its current form but you feel it should be developed over time? You were very strong in supporting the legislation, Mrs Di Mezza.

Mrs Di Mezza : Yes, we support it. We think it's a step in the right direction. But, as we said, it would be great if it were paid. I want to mention something you just said. It does predominantly affect women, but there are also male victims and survivors, and we need to acknowledge that.

CHAIR: This is more a clarification than a question. Again, it goes back to something you said, Mrs Di Mezza. It's very clear that this leave is not available to perpetrators.

Mrs Di Mezza : Yes.

CHAIR: That has been very strongly stated by the minister and is definitely ruled out.

Mrs Di Mezza : We're glad about that. Thank you.

Senator WATERS: Thanks, both, for being here today and for your submissions. I don't have too many questions for you, Mrs Di Mezza, but I also wanted to clarify something, as I think the chair has just done. As per your submission, you say you would ideally advocate for the leave to be paid so that the person suffering domestic violence doesn't also have to suffer financially. So I think we've clarified that that's your preferred position.

Mrs Di Mezza : Yes.

Senator WATERS: It's certainly a very common message so far today. We may have some differing views as the afternoon progresses, but so far it's loud and clear that people think that it should be a paid entitlement, and I personally support that too. Perhaps I might move to you, Dr Zirnsak. It's interesting that you say your synod has provided 20 days paid leave but no-one's used it yet. Why do you think that is? As a related question, I ask how much of an educative role your organisation took to advise people that this was in fact available to them. Do you think that might be why no-one's used it? What are your speculations?

Dr Zirnsak : The employment agreement covers several hundred employees. There is a possibility that in that three-year period nobody in the employment suffered family violence. That is a possibility. In terms of the level of education, the agreement is a collective agreement that every staff member has to vote on, so in fact it's voted on by staff. In the material that was provided promoting the agreement, the inclusion of the family violence leave was highlighted to employees as a specific positive addition to the collective agreements. It was highlighted multiple times, both verbally and in written material, that this was an addition. Given that employees then voted for the agreement, I think it would be unlikely that any employee did not understand that this clause had been added to our agreement.

The only other possibility, of course, is that people may have been subjected to family violence but have still chosen not to access this. I suspect that that could be possible on the basis that, in accessing it, you have to admit and you have to reveal to your employer that you are being subjected to family violence. As I indicated, I think that in itself will be a barrier, which is an additional concern that I have with the bill that is being put forward here—which we do support; I don't want to come across as sounding like we don't want this bill passed, but ideally we would like to see amendments. One of the big things we would like to see changed is that requirement of a person having to show to an employer that it is impractical for them to do the thing that they need to do outside ordinary hours. I think that will be an extra barrier. If I'm already a bit reluctant to reveal to my employer that I have a family violence problem, to then have to go to them and provide evidence that I have a court appearance or I might need to do something that I can't manage outside normal working hours, I think, is going to be an additional barrier for people who want to access the leave.

Senator WATERS: I couldn't agree more, and I imagine this issue will crop up in every workplace, particularly those that start to provide this leave—paid leave, ideally. How do we break down that stigma and support employees to feel comfortable to make that disclosure? What are your suggestions?

Dr Zirnsak : My suggestion here is that hopefully it will become more common and acceptable to reveal that you are being subjected to family violence and there won't be a stigma. That is part of the broader cultural shift we need to see. Survivors of family violence, or those being subjected to it, are to be helped and encouraged to see that they are not responsible for the abuse they are receiving. I think that is still a significant cultural problem, and I suspect this kind of leave provision will help make that shift. Over time I suspect that, if you make that cultural shift, more people would probably access the leave, but with that said, I still think for an employer this will be a very minor cost. This is not like annual leave, sick leave or even carer's leave; this is something people are overwhelmingly going to access in rare and desperate circumstances. Frankly I'm fairly disappointed with the claims about cost in some of the employer submissions to this inquiry. Maybe over time we will learn a bit more from the New Zealand model that is in place. Hopefully some analysis will be done there. On the evidence presented to this inquiry by the Victorian government and other state governments that have already provided this, you would say that people are accessing this leave at a pretty low level, so in that case the cost to even a large employer has been pretty low at this point in time.

Mrs Di Mezza : I think the introduction of such a law is an important step, but a lot more work needs to happen after that. We are talking about a cultural shift and moving away from stigma. Employers need a good understanding of what the law means, how they can support their employees, what domestic and family violence is and what the rights of their employees are, and employees need an organisational space where they feel supported, that it safe to disclose and that the information they provide is confidential. That is a major step which needs to take place. We can't introduce laws, rules or whatever without making efforts to educate and raise awareness about what it means, how we can support employees and how employees can access their rights.

Senator WATERS: I couldn't agree more. The National Retail Association, who appeared earlier, essentially said the same thing—that many of their members want to go further but don't know where to start and need that additional level of education and support. The association suggested they would like to be involved in that in collaboration with unions and the regulator. It's a societal obligation on us all, but hopefully the government has plans for an associated educative function and campaign to enable employers to step up and support their workers in this regard. The issue of confidentiality is perhaps a question for both of you. Dr Zirnsak, you mentioned it in particular. I'm interested in what confidentiality provisions your organisation has brought in accompanying that 20 days paid entitlement. How do you communicate that? How is that working? Tell us more about how we keep that confidential but still support the employees and inform the employers?

Dr Zirnsak : Within the family violence leave clause we have in our agreement is a confidentiality clause. It is absolute that the employer keeps that information confidential. Hopefully that will build confidence for people to come forward if they need to access the leave. Within that is a provision for providing support. There is a clause about provision of support for a person who is experiencing family violence. Within that clause is an agreement that the synod as the employer will provide people with flexible work arrangements, should they need those. It is comprehensive. Because this bill was focusing on only the leave aspect, I pulled out that part of the agreement, but in actual fact the family violence clause in our lay staff employment agreement is broad and covers all those aspects from confidentiality through to offering support and providing flexible work arrangements where they are needed, in addition to the 20 days of paid leave.

Senator WATERS: That sounds quite like best practice. Can you on notice provide us with a copy of the full terms that relate to family violence?

Dr Zirnsak : Sure, I can do that. I'm absolutely happy to do that.

Senator WATERS: To see what your organisation has done would be useful context for us—congratulations.

Mrs Di Mezza : Confidentiality is so important. Part of that should be speaking with the employee and asking them who within the workplace they would like to be informed, if anyone at all, or whether it should it be limited to one person. We need a rights focus in how confidentiality is treated. We need to ask the person, 'What would you like to happen?' Confidentiality plays into that whole issue of stigma. People feel they're going to be treated or perceived in a very negative light by their colleagues or manager if they disclose. It's important for people to feel that they can safely ask for the support and leave they might need and their confidentiality will be respected.

Senator WATERS: It is an important issue. I'm harkening back to some of the other submissions. I can't remember which one brought up the thorny issue of how you maintain that confidentiality obligation with the employee that has made the disclosure in seeking leave, while also keeping other staff members safe if the perpetrator, for example, is turning up at the place of work and pressuring other employees for information about the sufferer. Do you have any views on how we can guide and assist employers to balance that confidentiality with their obligation to keep other workers safe?

Mrs Di Mezza : You have to keep the employee within the network of information that is discussed in plans you're trying to formulate or implement to protect the rest of the workplace. It is important that communication is open within that restricted circle. Consideration for the safety of other people is definitely something that can't be pushed to the side, but the key is to keep that information flowing to the employee suffering the family and domestic violence, because otherwise they start to feel betrayed, that their personal information is being disclosed.

Senator WATERS: Do you have anything to add to that, Dr Zirnsak?

Dr Zirnsak : The synod had a situation a few years back where an employee who was being subjected to family violence had a restraining order against their partner in place, and the synod took steps to ensure that the employee was protected in the workplace through that, but I wasn't across the details of that particular case. I could try to find out from our human resources section whether we have any policy, practice or guidance that we can provide the committee as to how we've dealt with those kinds of situations as they arose.

Senator WATERS: I think that would be useful, if you wouldn't mind, because it has been raised. I would imagine that this issue will crop up as other employers take these positive extra steps and provide more leave than what this bill proposes—and paid leave, as the sector wants—and it would be fantastic to share information with those employers on how it has been dealt with in a positive and successful way.

Mrs Di Mezza : If there were a provision for adjusting the number of days according to the person's circumstances, that would be helpful too. I know we have to start somewhere, but there are situations where people need more time and five days won't cut it. If perhaps there could be flexibility, that would be helpful, but I believe five days is a very positive start.

CHAIR: On the community awareness side of things, I will mention that the Stop it at the Start campaign is very important in this respect. It has been showing some great results. Phase 2 of it is being launched today by Minister O'Dwyer and Minister Fletcher. I think it's important that we all support that initiative and continue to raise awareness of this as a very important issue that affects a lot of people. Thank you both very much for appearing today. We really appreciate it.

Proceedings suspended from 12:15 to 13 : 30