Why Doesn't Australia Have Paid Domestic Violence Leave Yet?

"In 2018 women shouldn't be forced to choose between income and safety."

Millions of Australian workers now have access to domestic violence leave from the employers, after a landmark Fair Work Commission decision came into effect on Wednesday.

All workers currently on modern award agreements can access five days of unpaid leave each year, but just a week earlier, our neighbours across the ditch in New Zealand passed laws allowing for 10 days paid leave for all employees.

So where does Australia stand on domestic violence leave? Are we likely to get paid leave any time soon? And why do people even need it? Here's what you need to know.

What is domestic violence leave?

Domestic violence leave is a special type of leave from work, meant to allow employees time to deal with the effects of, or escaping from, domestic or family violence. This might include moving house, attending court, looking after children, or seeking medical care.

(Getty Images)

"If someone experiencing domestic violence has been up all night being terrorised, their capacity to do their job is impacted. They become unreliable in getting to work, or making mistakes at work," Karen Willis, executive officer of Rape and Domestic Violence Services Australia, told ten daily.

"In the past, employers have seen the victim as the problem, and sacked people."

According to Our Watch, one in four Australian women have experienced physical or sexual violence from a partner. Of those women who experience violence, more than half have children in their care. On average, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.

Rather than making domestic violence victims use sick, annual or personal leave, dedicated domestic violence leave gives an opportunity to put their affairs in order.

Access to domestic violence leave is usually on an 'honour system', rather than needing workers to provide proof like a doctor's certificate.

Paid vs unpaid leave

But while many Australian employees are now entitled to five days of unpaid domestic violence leave, unions and violence services are pushing for 10 days of paid leave.

"Assisting someone to escape violence when they have an income is so much easier than if they don't," Willis said.

Michele O'Neil, president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, had an even simpler explanation.

"Victims shouldn't have to choose between their safety and their economic livelihood," she told ten daily.

When people escape, they need time to get out of the home. They need to find a new place to live, move schools for children, visit doctors, lawyers, meet police as well as attend court hearings.

"All of those take place in normal working hours, and without access to paid leave, they're faced with the terrible choice of losing income or even their job, or staying where they're experiencing violence," O'Neil said.

"We also know of workers being sacked because they had no leave available, and the only choice they had was taking leave without it being authorised."

Previous ACTU research showed the costs of a national paid leave policy would cost five cents per employee.

So what are Australians entitled to?

"Most employees can now take unpaid leave to deal with family and domestic violence," the Fair Work Commission said, as a July 2017 decision came into effect on Wednesday.

The ACTU had pushed for 10 days paid leave to be available to all workers employed under modern awards. The FWC rejected that, but ruled five days unpaid leave be made available.

"The new entitlement applies to all employees covered by an industry or occupation award," the FWC said. The ruling does not apply to all workers, with those who are covered under enterprise awards among those excluded.

(For more info on whether you are covered, click here)

The government opposes paid domestic violence leave. Minister for Women Kelly O'Dwyer said in March "people do have access to personal and carers leave at the moment, people do have the ability to take unpaid leave."

The former minister, Michaelia Cash, previously stated domestic violence leave would be a "perverse disincentive" to employ female workers.

What do politicians say?

A spokesperson for O'Dwyer's office told ten daily the government would soon enshrine the FWC decision in law so all workers had access to unpaid leave.

"So that there is consistency for all employees and employers in the national system the Turnbull Government is introducing legislation so all workers covered by the Fair Work Act will also have access to five days unpaid family and domestic violence leave," O'Dwyer's office said.

"This will cover up to six million extra workers."

Tanya Plibersek, the shadow minister for women, said Labor supported a paid leave scheme.

"The combined stress of seeking legal advice and accessing counselling services and medical treatment should not be compounded by the fear of losing their job or the financial disadvantage of going without pay," she told ten daily.

"That is why if elected we will legislate for ten days paid domestic and family violence leave in the National Employment Standards. Labor is committed to making domestic and family violence leave a universal workplace right."

Employers take the lead

Although paid domestic violence leave is not part of federal law yet, many employees do have access to it. Employers are free to offer the condition to their workers, going beyond federal minimum guidelines, with large employers like Qantas, Virgin and NAB doing so.

Unions estimate more than one million workers are able to access paid leave under their employer's special scheme.

"There are a hell of a lot of employers who do the right thing," Willis said.

"We have many stories of employers helping out when they know there is a problem, even sending employees to help the victim move house."

Commonwealth Bank offers workers 10 days paid domestic violence leave per year, plus an additional five days for employees who need to help family experiencing violence. 

"We know people have to attend medical appointments, seek legal assistance, attend court or counselling," Liz Griffin, the CBA's head of Diversity & Inclusion, told ten daily.

She said the bank's scheme, running for several years, has not experienced any cheating or misuse.

"When people have asked for that support, it’s been from a genuine space. Our employees say they're grateful for us to recognise that."

O'Neil said it was exceedingly rare for such provisions to be misused.

So now what?

Unions applaud employers who offer paid leave, but maintain the condition must be codified into law and available to all.

"Safety shouldn't conditional on where you work," O'Neil said.

"In 2018, women shouldn't be forced to choose between income and safety."

The Labor party will take its policy of paid leave to the next election.