Reclaiming her life … Katja, who was in an abusive relationship, had an understanding employer when the effects of her situation at home took a toll on her standards at work.Katja was in an abusive relationship for eight years. It dominated her life. “It was a mixture of everything; emotional abuse, physical abuse,” she says. “A lot of very controlling behaviour.”
The abuse started slowly after she fell “madly in love” while living in London in the early 2000s.
“The closer I got to him, the more he would reveal things. I ended up in this situation caring for him while he had breakdown after breakdown.”
Her partner’s troubles, borne of a childhood exposed to violence, had left him “extremely volatile” and later diagnosed with mental illness.
“He went from extreme depression to extreme mania, the bipolar cycle,” she says. “He would threaten me and manipulate me to go along with the lies; there was a lot of control and lying.”
During their time together, her life changed. Katja, now 42, spent two years out of work trying to help her partner find a job. She also experienced a noticeable shift in her own career.
“Prior to that relationship, I would quite easily get promotions into other jobs,” she says.
“Once I got stuck in an abusive relationship, I started being overlooked for promotions, I wouldn’t get interviews. People in the workplace noticed I had more and more time off and I was often crying at work.”
But Katja, who works for a government organisation in NSW, was lucky in other ways. Some women are killed by violent partners and others are forced to quit their jobs – often the last link to a world outside the suffocating abuse.
Katja’s problems also started to intrude on her work. After she began turning up late on a regular basis, a new (male) manager asked Katja why.
“I basically said I can’t talk to you about this because I couldn’t talk to any man about my situation, so I said I will write to you and I wrote him a memo and explained everything.”
Katja’s manager was empathetic and agreed to her request for two weeks leave. She says that meant she could “go to the doctor, get some medication and basically have a breakdown”.
Later she returned to work part time, then eventually full time and continued to study for a degree.
At the time, Katja’s employer did not have a domestic violence policy but has since endorsed a regime that gives paid or unpaid leave and other support for victims.
It is two years since the first employer in Australia, the Surf Coast Shire Council in the Victorian town of Torquay, agreed to a world’s best standard of 20 days of paid family violence leave. It was a unique and generous collective agreement.
Since that deal, negotiated by the Australian Services Union, dozens of similar agreements have been struck across Australia, from Queensland Rail to the NSW public service, to the aged-care sector and dozens of councils.
About 700,000 workers now have some entitlement to paid family violence leave – about one in every 14.
Anti-family violence campaigner Ludo McFerran has championed the issue to unions and others, and is spreading the word at international conferences, speaking to activists from Europe, North America and New Zealand.
McFerran says abused women are among the worst off in the job market and tend to have lower incomes. Studies also show the importance of a paid job because the financial independence is vital in helping victims escape a violent relationship.
That is why the 2010 Surf Coast Shire agreement is regarded as so significant and comprehensive.
It required that someone in human resources at the council be trained in family violence and privacy issues so that workers could be referred to other support services.
If needed, proof of abuse would come from professionals such as doctors or police.
Campaigner Phil Cleary believes his sister Vicki might have lived if a family violence agreement had been in place. In 1987, Vicki was stabbed to death by her former boyfriend outside the kindergarten where she worked in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg.
“My sister was murdered parking her car, outside her place of work, by someone who had been there before in a threatening manner,” he says. “At the time, people thought it was private business.”
Cleary says if there had been an agreement in 1987, the kindergarten “would have gone on alert”.
“It would have identified this man as a predator. If that had happened with [Peter] Keogh in 1987, I fancy my sister would have been alive; it would have alerted us to the danger.”
Cleary says the agreements are important as they acknowledge how widespread the violence is. “It’s sad we’ve got to factor family violence into an EBA [enterprise bargaining agreement] because it’s necessary, because violence in the home afflicts women workers,” he says.
“I welcome it, but the cautionary tale is that we have to deal with the violence first hand.”
It is a dismal fact that violence against women inhabits every crack and crevice of Australian life.
In 2005, a detailed picture emerged from a Bureau of Statistics report that showed about one in six women experience domestic violence from either a previous or current partner.
That equated to about 1.3 million women. About one in four of those women had been sexually assaulted from a current or previous partner while more than 80 per cent had been physically assaulted. It pointed to a problem across classes, age groups and among both the local and overseas born.
Sara*, from Melbourne’s western suburbs, was a migrant who came from a culture where it was frowned on to speak out about domestic violence. The shame fell on the victim.
The abuse from her ex-husband was “controlling in every way”. “It got worse, it was physical, he actually threatened to kill my children too,” she says. “I had to call police several times, I had to get intervention orders.”
Sara felt trapped from the ongoing abuse. She had two young children to care for and her performance at work suffered. Her manager started noticing she was “very unsettled” and began asking questions, approaches that Sara rebuffed.
“One day she sat down with me and said that my work performance was not up to standard and told me I would not last,” Sara says. “She was very patient and very nice and said she was willing to help me. Then I started crying and I just told her everything.”
Sara was fortunate her manager had worked in the domestic violence field and she gave her important advice. Soon after, she took action.
After getting an intervention order, changing the locks to her house and hiring a lawyer, it took two years for the divorce and property settlement to be finished. Sara now has a mortgage, works part time and has a $50,000 debt to her lawyer. “Financially, I am worse off but nothing beats the peace and happiness of being at home with my children.”
The hope from activists is women such as Sara and Katja will have more formal ways to obtain paid leave and support rather than relying on the goodwill of managers.
The ASU Victoria and Tasmania assistant branch secretary, Lisa Darmanin, says she has been surprised how quickly the change has occurred after her union signed the first agreement with Surf Coast Shire.
“Usually these kinds of reforms take quite a while to embed into the culture of bargaining,” she says. “Both employers and employees realise this is a societal issue that workplaces can play an active role in.”
Darmanin says where the agreement exists she has had anecdotal feedback it is being used, but sparingly. “We don’t expect a huge uptake of it, it should be used as much as it needs to be.”
As paid family violence leave spreads through the workforce, there are calls for it to become a universal right.
Federal agency the Law Reform Commission this year recommended the national government consider whether paid leave be included as a right in the national employment standards, the workplace safety net.
It should also consider giving victims of family violence a right to flexible work hours. The union movement endorsed this push at its triennial ACTU congress.
However, while employer groups do not oppose voluntary workplace agreements they have expressed concern at it going further. Small business, in particular, would struggle with cost and complying with new rules, they say.
The Chamber of Commerce and Industry workplace policy director, Daniel Mammone, says domestic violence affects everyone “in the community” and needed a “community-based response”.
Many employers already “go above and beyond their legal obligations” and are sensitive to the needs of staff and put them in contact with professionals. That was a better model, he says, than a “rights-based approach”. McFerran says sustained reform will only come from national standards.
For people such as Katja, losing her job was the thing she feared most as it took her away from the “terror” at home and provided a source of independence.
“I was so afraid to lose my job,” she says. “Work was so important to me. It was fun being at work, and a welcome escape from home.”
* Sara not her real name.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.