Domestic violence deserves the 'one punch' treatment and laws changed to protect women at work

Earlier this year, the media's response to alleged "one-punch" killings was undoubtedly a highly successful campaign for legislative change. It sparked outcry across the country as governments scrambled to implement harsh, and arguably ineffective, legislation to address and prevent senseless violence.

In stark contrast, despite significant campaigning over several years by various legal, social and government peak bodies, simple protections against the discrimination of women who are the victims of domestic violence are yet to be legislated.

There has been some powerful literature on this topic in recent times, for example by Jill Meagher's husband, Tom Meagher. However, there has not been an imperative to address this issue in the civil law arena.

Unlike Australia, countries such as the USA, the UK and Spain have taken, and continue to take, steps to implement laws that provide a basic right to victims of domestic violence: the right not to be treated unfairly on the basis of their status as a victim of domestic violence.

Discrimination against victims of domestic violence can occur in the provision of goods and services (such as child care), in access to accommodation and in the court system. However, a particularly insidious form of discrimination occurs at the workplace.

Having worked for an organisation that assists women with work-related issues, I have seen this unfair treatment occur more times than most people would expect or fathom.

The unfair treatment isn't always just a straight-forward dismissal: it quite often manifests as oppressive behaviour aimed at forcing the woman out of the workplace, such as by demotions, performance management, harassment and relocations to out-of-the-way offices.

For example, Holly*, a hotel employee, was unable to attend work due to injuries caused by domestic violence. She was performance managed for her absence. Another woman, Anne*, requested a relocation to move away from her abusive partner. Her employer forced her to sign an undertaking not to return to the relationship in exchange for the relocation.

Social commentary has moved beyond the argument about whether domestic violence is a workplace issue. In 2013, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick, spoke on the issue to the Commission on the Status of Women and suggested measures, such as providing leave entitlements and flexible work arrangements, businesses could take to improve the working conditions of women experiencing domestic violence. In other publications, alarming statistics have been presented about the effect domestic violence has on women's participation in the workforce and how working can assist women in gaining financial independence.

Some employers and trade unions have taken steps to negotiate workplace entitlements for victims of domestic violence, such as paid leave to attend doctors, police and court appointments, the introduction of workplace policies and training and access to counselling. These employers should be congratulated for their progressiveness.

But other than at a handful of workplaces, victims of domestic violence do not even have the basic right to be free of adverse treatment on the basis of their status as a victim of domestic violence.

Australia's anti-discrimination laws should be amended to include domestic violence victim status as an attribute that requires protection. Then, like disability, family responsibilities, and pregnancy, it will be treated for what it is: an issue that affects women and makes them vulnerable to unfavourable treatment.

A number of legal and human rights agencies and collectives across the country are on board with this proposal. There have been numerous submissions to the Australian Law Reform Commission throughout 2011 and 2012 supporting this proposal. I spoke in favour of the change to the Anti-Discrimination Commission Queensland as recently as last year.

It is a simple and straightforward measure. A number of states in the US have taken this approach and it appears to be working. It not only legitimises the protection as an issue worth addressing, but provides a basic right to all victims of domestic violence, regardless of where they work.

*Names changed to protect identity.

Alana Heffernan

Alana Heffernan is a lawyer in the Employment and Industrial Law Section at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers, Brisbane, and co-authored a 2010 conference paper: Domestic violence discrimination in the workplace: Is statutory protection necessary?

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