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What unions can do to put a stop to domestic violence

23 February, 2021PART 3: "Domestic violence and the role of trade unions explained". As unions we need a game plan to tackle domestic violence; here is how we can do it.

Although domestic violence may originate in the home, it can spill over into the world of work. Domestic violence is also a health and safety issue, representing a risk for the health and safety of the victims/survivors, as well as their co-workers.


16.    Why should employers address the impact of domestic violence at work

Domestic violence can severely impede the health, wellbeing and safety of affected employees. All employers have a “duty of care” towards their workforce. Health and safety laws ensure workers have the right to work in a safe environment where risks to health and well-being are considered and dealt with efficiently. Murders of victims in their place of work show just how serious the consequences of domestic violence can be on work premises.

An employer can be deemed to have breached their duty of care by failing to do everything that was reasonable in the circumstances to keep the employee safe from harm.

Domestic abuse results in decreased productivity; increased absences; increased errors; increased employee turnover. It also affects other staff who may: have to fill in for absent or non-productive colleagues; feel resentful of victims/survivors; try to protect victims/survivors from unwanted phone calls and visits; feel helpless and distracted from their work; fear for their own safety.

UN gender guidance on human right due diligence provides that businesses should develop measures and remedies that are ‘transformative’, i.e. capable of “bringing about systematic changes in discriminatory power structures”. When companies send the message that domestic violence and abuse is unacceptable this can have a spin-off effect, sending a strong message to the wider community, contributing to change social norms resulting in acceptance of domestic violence as normal.

Sources: TUC, Support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse; Domestic violence and abuse: a trade union issue, a UNISON guide; Gender dimensions on the guiding principles on business and human rights

17. Why should trade unions take action?

For victims/survivors of domestic violence, work represents a refuge away from their abusers where the victims/survivors work and capacities can be valued, and where exchanges with colleagues allow for reduced isolation. Work also represents a source of income and financial independence.

Domestic violence affects performance at work and the victim/survivor may face sanctions and dismissal. No one should lose their job or income as a result of experiencing domestic abuse. By losing their source of income, they lose their independence, making it more difficult for them to leave their abusers. Trade unions need to defend the rights of these members and workers.

Solidarity and equality are the main pillars of trade union’s work. Violence against women is a radical expression of discrimination. Trade unions should find ways to support and protect workers’ victims/survivors of domestic violence.

Domestic violence is also a health and safety issue, representing a risk for the health and safety of the victims/survivors, as well as their co-workers.

Sources: TUC, Support in the workplace for victims of domestic abuse; OFL, Domestic violence goes to work every day: A bargaining guide; Breaking the silence, Briefing for IUF affiliates

18. Addressing the impacts of domestic violence at work

Unions should raise awareness and educate members and workers on the impact of discrimination and gender inequality. They must challenge gender stereotypes and social norms that generate and justify violence against women, including domestic violence.

To end gender based violence, C190 calls for a “gender responsive approach” that will “tackle underlying causes and risk factors, including gender stereotypes, multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, and unequal gender-based power relations”.

Trade unions should also take action to condemn all forms of gender based violence, including domestic violence, and raise awareness on this issue by: establishing for example, an internal policy, code of conduct or equality statement to promote a violence and harassment-free union environment; publishing articles or material about domestic violence and the workplace; collaborating with civil society organisations and associations fighting domestic violence.

The primary responsibility to address domestic violence lays with the governments. Trade unions have been campaigning, along civil society organisations and associations, to achieve paid leave and other provisions in law, like in the Philippines and New Zealand where intense campaigns led to the inclusion of ten days paid leave for victims/survivors of domestic violence, in Australia five days’ unpaid leave, or five day’s paid leave in almost all provinces of Canada.

Check what are the existing laws on violence against women in your country.

Trade unions have been also lobbying governments to ratify ILO Convention 190 and ensure that governments and employers take  their duty of care for workers affected by domestic violence seriously, whether they are public or private places of work.

Sources: Workers Facing Domestic Violence – Lobbying for Economic Support, UNIFOR; ILO Convention 190, ACTU campaign We won’t wait! in Australia

19. How can trade unions support members and workers?

Victims/survivors make considerable efforts to hide what is going on, especially in the workplace. Very often women suffer in silence, too afraid, or perhaps too ashamed to seek help. Members who trust the union to challenge domestic violence and advocate for victims are more likely to come forward, and to turn to a trusted union rep.

By showing that they care, union reps can help break the victims' isolation. It is essential that anyone reporting abuse is confident that reporting such an incident will be taken seriously. It is important for the union to train its reps to recognize signs of domestic violence, listen and offer confidential support to the victims and survivors, and put them in contact with existing services.

Trade unions have put together guidelines and trainings for its reps and delegates to ensure that their attempts to help would not generate more harm or backfire and put someone in more danger, like AMWU’s Do and DON’T Guidelines for delegates.

Unifor in Canada, negotiated a Women’s Advocate programme and now has over 400 women’s advocates in workplaces across the country. The employer pays for training and office space for specialized union representatives who help women experiencing harassment or violence at work or in their personal lives. The advocates offer non-judgmental and confidential support, explain workplace and community options and help the member navigate those systems. Advocates are trained to recognize signs of abuse, make referrals and work with the employer on a safety plan.

20. What to negotiate with the employers through collective bargaining?

Developing a robust workplace policy on domestic violence is critical in addressing the impact of domestic violence at work. The employers should develop it together with teh health and safety committees or with workers’ representatives.

The policy should include:

  • a statement against domestic violence
  • trainings and awareness raising sessions for human resources and managers, as well as employees on how recognize the signs of domestic violence and how to respond to it safely and appropriately
  • protective measures and work arrangement for the victims/ survivors
  • protection against retaliation or discrimination on the basis of their disclosure
  • a clause of strict confidentiality
  • workplace safety strategies, including risk assessments and safety plans for the victims/survivors and their colleagues, when domestic violence is disclosed

Trade unions can also negotiate to include domestic violence in collective agreements at all level, national, regional, sectoral, company or workplace levels, or in policies on violence and harassment in the workplace.

They can include domestic violence as an example of violence covered by the collective agreement or policies, or negotiate standalone language that recognizes domestic violence as an important workplace concern, and requires specific follow up and protective measures. By naming domestic violence openly in health and safety workplace policies, you are working to destigmatize domestic violence.

Protective measures for victims/ survivors could include

  • temporary protection against dismissal for victims/survivors
  • work arrangement to adapt their work schedules, use pseudonyms, and have flexible working hours
  • allowing them to make the necessary changes to protect themselves from abusers who exploit knowledge of their working hours and location

Dedicated leave for victims/survivors of domestic violence is key, as this enables victims/survivors to flee, deal with any legal proceedings as well as to access support, services, remedies and settle safely.

Trade unions should bargain for a minimum of ten days paid leave per year in addition to existing leave provisions, extended under exceptional circumstances, as no survivor of domestic violence should have to choose between their safety and that of their family, and their job. If employers do not agree to provisions for paid leave, unpaid leave is the interim default position, provided the survivor’s job position is guaranteed.

Source: TUC Domestic violence: a guide for the workplace; USW’s Bargaining guide on how to address domestic violence in collective agreements; Unite the Union Domestic Violence & Abuse – a negotiators guide; OFL, Domestic violence goes to work every day: A bargaining guide; Guide on domestic violence and the workplace, CUPE; CLC Model language for collective agreements; Briefing for IUF affiliates


21. What can trade unions do during lockdowns and with increased teleworking?

With the increase of domestic violence, trade unions have been active in disclosing the contact of support and emergency services for victims/ survivors of domestic violence. They have also been lobbying the government for increased support for shelters and gender-based violence support services, as well the establishment of a fund aimed at ensuring the exit of women from the spiral of violence.

Social isolation means those at risk have less contact with people who might ordinarily spot signs of abuse. A rep or co-worker may have the greatest opportunity to help – as they have a pretext to 'go behind closed doors' and check in with people via a phone or video call.

Shop stewards can stay in touch with members through union communication channels, web sites, text messaging asking if they feel safe in their homes. Trade unions should circulate regular information about domestic violence safety measures and how to seek help. Reps can spot the signs of possible domestic violence, support the victims and survivors who stay at home because of lockdown and teleworking.

Trade unions should also work and negotiate with employers to find new ways to provide support to employees’ victims/ survivors of domestic working from home and adapt and/or introduce security plans to work/home settings.

Sources: Guidance of TUC for reps: Domestic abuse and coronavirus; Guidance for trade union from dv@worknet

22. What to do if the perpetrator of domestic violence is worker and/or trade union member?

Finding solutions to the problem of dealing with perpetrators who may be colleagues or union members or representatives is an important and challenging issue.

Abusers may use work time or equipment to send abusive messages or to plan and carry out violent acts. They may be preoccupied or distracted, affecting their work performance. It is the employer’s responsibility to provide a safe working environment and hold workers involved in abusive behaviour accountable.

Disciplinary measures and sanctions, including dismissals, may have to applied. Employers can help perpetrators to end their abusive behaviour. Disciplinary measures can include participation in perpetrator counselling/treatment programmes.

It is important that the union has clear guidelines for trade union officers and representatives on how to have conversations, and how they will manage members who are perpetrators of domestic violence. Trade unions may advise their reps, if they are aware of a colleague or member that they think may perpetrate domestic abuse, to check in with them and signpost them to help.

In situations of disciplinary measures, the union may be required to represent perpetrators. Union representatives should review all options to reasonably accommodate. The abuser needs to know thatthebehaviour is wrong and will not be tolerated.

If the victim/survivor and the perpetrator work in the same company, action may need to be taken to ensure that the victim/survivor and perpetrator do not come into contact in the workplace. Action, like a change of duties for one or both employees or withdrawing access to information, may also need to be taken.

Sources: Guidance of TUC for reps: Domestic abuse and coronavirus; OFL, Domestic violence goes to work every day: A bargaining guide; Guidance for trade union from dv@worknet