“It’s about time the law recognizes the undue stress and hardship that gender-based violence puts on female workers, Sexual and domestic violence disproportionately affect women, and often have a negative impact on their lives at work.”
– OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas
The Provincial Women’s Committee brought a motion to OPSEU’s Executive Board that calls for increased lobbying, campaigning and promotion of issues of domestic and sexual violence. The motion was passed by the Executive Board in late June.
One of the key goals of the motion is to ensure that legislative changes are actually responsive to the unique difficulties faced by workers who experience violence whether in the home or in the workplace. “Changes to legislation are crucial,” says PWC Chair, Carol Mundley, “because violence against women is pervasive. It affects women in every age, class, and geographical area, but at the same time has disproportionate impact on indigenous, racialized and immigrant and other women who are most vulnerable. We have to recognize this violence as a gross human rights violation.”
Legislative protections are just one major step to ensuring women don’t have to decide between an abusive relationship and the paycheque they need to escape the abuse in the first place. Research has shown that employment is the key pathway for women to leave and recover from domestic and sexual violence. And sexual and domestic violence are significant workplace issues because violence often follows women to employment.
As the PWC has previously highlighted here, the link between violence and the workplace was confirmed in a 2014 research study conducted by the CLC Western University’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children.
According to the study, 82% of the survivors said that violence from an intimate partner negatively affected their job performance. Over half of the respondents indicated that at least one type of abusive act occurred at or near the workplace. One in ten of the respondents said they were fired as a result of the violence they experienced. This means that employers are already paying the price for loss of output, productivity and workplace absences. In major studies conducted by the federal Department of Justice, it is estimated that Canadian employers are already paying $78 million annually due to domestic violence, and $18.4 million annually due to sexual violence.
Legislative changes shift costs from employers to the provision of adequate supports for survivors of violence. In Ontario, recent legislative changes, like Bill 148 – A Plan for Fair Workplaces and Better Jobs, introduced new domestic and sexual violence leave provisions, but these changes were seen by many as failing to provide anything close to the leave provisions necessary for survivors of violence to rebuild their lives.
In September 2017, NDP Leader, Andrea Horwath introduced Bill 157, a private member’s bill that would address some of the gaps in legislation. Bill 157 calls for 10 days of paid leave and up to 15 weeks of unpaid leave so that women would have the time-off they need to get to safety, seek counselling, or participate in court proceedings. Under the proposal, the provincial government would cover the costs of extending paid leave to survivors, believing that ending intimate partner violence is the responsibility of everyone.
The PWC is also critical of current legislative changes.
Part of the problem is that leave entitlements are too restrictive, and the legislation dictates acceptable reasons for taking leave such as for seeking counselling or medical attention. Even more, employees are expected to provide reasonable evidence to an employer to demonstrate entitlement to leave, but given the extreme sensitivity of most situations of domestic and sexual violence, the requirement may be more burdensome and invasive then that required for other kinds of leaves.
For the last several years, the PWC has been calling for changes to the Employment Standards Act and OHSA that reflect the provisions like those proposed in Bill 157 “It was huge that the Provincial government introduced domestic and sexual violence leave provisions,“ says Carol Mundley, “But five days of paid leave is just not enough to address the complex issues survivors face. Without adequate leave provisions, women can’t afford to take unpaid leave and many are forced to leave their jobs altogether.”
The motion adopted by OPSEU’s Executive Board also calls for an educational program that will empower OPSEU members to recognize and respond to gender-based violence and to develop model bargaining language for workplace policies and programs to address sexual and domestic violence.
The PWC believes that supporting members facing domestic and sexual violence includes ensuring that provisions in collective agreements provide for specific services and supports, like safety planning, training and referrals that are unique to situations of violence. The PWC would also like to see the development of innovative union programs like a Women’s Advocate Program, where specially trained representatives assist women to address intimate partner abuse or family violence.