Leave offers hope for domestic violence victims

Special to Western News

Barb MacQuarrie, Community Director of Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children, is confident a proposed new federal benefit that would allow survivors of domestic violence to take paid leave from work will go a long way to addressing the issue.

As the federal government moves towards consultations on a benefit that would allow survivors of domestic violence to take paid leave from work, Barb MacQuarrie sees a paradigm shift she knows is crucial to supporting survivors.

“For years, we’ve been trying to say (domestic violence) is not a personal problem; it is not a private problem. This is a societal problem. When you have workplaces that have a legal responsibility to support survivors, that goes a long way towards concretely making it a social problem, and it helps us understand that we all have a role to play,” said MacQuarrie, Community Director of Western’s Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children.

Canada would not be the first country to consider such legislation.

Last month, New Zealand passed a federal law that gives domestic violence survivors – as well as those caring for young victims of violence – 10 paid days off work to seek support, services and legal advice. New Zealand is the second country to create such a law, following the Philippines in 2004. Australia, which like New Zealand has one labour law for the entire country, provides the same benefit, however unpaid.

This fall, the Liberal government will begin consultations with stakeholders, employers and unions in an effort to provide federally regulated workers paid time off to deal with domestic violence, legal advice and proceedings, to leave abusive partners or get medical treatment.

The proposed benefit would allow survivors 10 days off — five of them paid. Canada’s federally regulated private sector workplaces – banks, marine shipping, air and rail transportation and telecommunications – employ roughly 900,000 individuals who would be eligible for the new federal benefit.

“New Zealand has really set the gold standard. Through the Domestic Violence at Work Network, we have worked on this issue internationally, pushing this idea of a paid leave as advocates, union reps and academics for years,” MacQuarrie said.

“To see New Zealand pass a single law, that applies to everybody in the country, that provides 10 days of leave, and clearly identifies domestic violence as an occupational health and safety hazard – they managed to do, in one swoop, what the rest of us are doing piece by piece. They really accomplished a lot. They’ve set a standard the rest of us can aspire to.”

In Canada, federal and provincial legislation variances mean employer support for survivors of domestic violence also vary. Some provinces offer five days of paid leave; some offer five unpaid; others offer 10 unpaid days.

Canada can’t follow in “one swoop” due to federal and provincial jurisdictions, but it is vital that every jurisdiction engages with the issue, MacQuarrie explained.

“We are seeing what’s happening in other countries and other jurisdictions in Canada, and we’re still not meeting that (standard). But five days is significant. It will be helpful. It’s not just the money that matters – it’s the idea workers are actually going to get support and won’t be seen as a problem.”

Employers will have to educate themselves on effects of domestic violence and need to gain a better understanding of the network of resources available to support survivors, she added. Employers will have to become a partner in that and build collaborative relationships with experts in order to properly support their employees who may be experiencing violence at home.

Research shows women who experience domestic violence have a more disruptive work history, are more likely to be in part-time or casual work and have a lower personal income, MacQuarrie stressed. Providing a paid leave from work is an important step to addressing these concerns.

“We absolutely know domestic violence has a negative impact on people’s careers and work lives. We also know being employed is a pathway out of an abusive relationship. You can’t underestimate how important it is to provide that support to someone who is employed. The paid days might mean a lot to the survivor, but we’re working at another level here as well – decreasing stigma, having a basic understanding of how to be supportive and how to respond in a situation,” she explained.

“The consultations are going to give us an opportunity to have lots of those discussions. There’s a whole education process that’s going to be needed for the consultations.”

Once paid leave implemented, that’s not the end of the process, MacQuarrie continued. Research is needed to understand exactly how this legislation helps workers who experience domestic violence, as well as understand if it is sufficient, how survivors end up using the leave and what other changes the legislation brings about in terms of attitudes and knowledge.

“It will take some time. It will be interesting to see if we can find any evidence this kind of legislation and support is eventually going to reduce domestic violence. I have a lot of hope for this. I think this is the paradigm shift we’ve been moving towards for a long time,” she noted.

“As important as this legislation is, it’s not complete. We need legislation that also identifies domestic violence as an occupational health and safety hazard. It’s proposed in the federal legislation; Ontario has passed the legislation; Alberta very recently passed it; British Columbia has written it into regulations, not legislation. We’re seeing movement.

But because of how our labour laws work, it’s piecemeal. It’s important as a companion piece for paid leave legislation because it gives employers responsibility to recognize the hazard and respond to it. A paid leave is one possible response – and a good one. But there are other responsible measures to safety planning and risk assessments to do.”