A core union belief becomes an entitlement that saves lives   

When the ‘We won’t wait’ campaign started, one Australian state had family violence leave. Now every state and territory has this life-saving entitlement.

“What are the principles of the trade union movement? They are unity and solidarity. We believe in safety and inclusion. We believe in equality. We believe in justice. We believe in respect. We believe in human dignity,” NSW Australian Services Union (ASU) secretary, Natalie Lang put to NSWNMA annual conference.

“They aren’t values that you pick up once we clock on at work but we forget about when we clock off and go home.

“These values are fundamental to who we are as members of this great movement, the union movement. They travel with us at work, at home, and in society.”

The “We won’t wait campaign” – to achieve 10 days paid family violence leave for all workers in Australia – was an embodiment of these principles and values, she says.

There are stark, horrifying statistics that highlight the urgency of action on family violence:

  • One in three women will experience sexual or family violence in their life.
  • One woman a week is killed in Australia by a current or former partner.
  • 800,000 workers are living with the pain and trauma of family violence.
  • Family violence is the leading preventable cause of death and disability in women aged 18 to 44.
  • Family violence costs our economy between 12 and 23 billion dollars every year.

The idea for a campaign for family violence leave by the union movement came from members of the ASU working in women’s services.

“It’s a workplace issue for them. Our members were saying there is only so much they can do when they are in a safe room at the courthouse with the woman who is trying to get an AVO or domestic violence order to protect her safety and her children’s safety, but her employer is on the phone telling her that she’s used up her sick leave and she needs to be back at work or she’s going to lose her job,” Natalie said.

“That’s where the ‘We Won’t Wait’ campaign came from. We won’t wait because women can’t wait.  Wait until a safety order is put in place. Wait. Wait. Wait. Nobody should be told to wait when they are dealing with their safety and dignity and the safety and dignity of their children and family.”

The union movement has since argued that 10 days’ paid violence leave will allow women to remain employed and maintain their financial security.

“We know that when women remain in employment they have better prospects of being able to leave violence,” says Natalie.

“We also know that violence is incredibly expensive and time consuming to leave. On average it takes 6 attempts to leave violence. On average it takes 141 hours to undertake the necessities like finding safe accommodation, meeting with the bank, meeting with the school to make safe arrangements for children, making court and medical appointments.

“One hundred and forty one hours and $18,000. When you are already trying to leave violence and to live safely in the community you can’t be expected to lose your job and try to find the time and money to be able to do so.”

Unions worked together to win

Natalie says the union movement realised the only way to win paid family leave was if all unions worked together.

“We talked about a strategy to deliver it. We knew we needed to be able to influence not just the federal government but also every single government in Australia. So we decided we would try to target the Council of Australian governments.

“That if we could, one by one, get every state and territory government to meet their contribution by ensuring paid family leave for their workforce and in their systems we’d have a better chance of convincing a federal Liberal government.”

Unions agreed to a concentrated 16-day period of campaign activities by all unions.

“We had local activities based on geography as well as based on unions. We campaigned in regional and local communities across the country.

“People took selfies with selfie signs, we had morning teas at workplaces, we had rallies, we had marches and we had lobbying delegations.

“There were nurses, teachers, women’s services workers and police officers. We had frontline workers who intersect in all the gamut of services that people with violence need to interact with.”

Embedded in National Employment Standards

When the ‘We Can’t Wait’ campaign started only one Australian state – Victoria – had paid family violence leave. Now every state and territory government, including NSW, has paid family violence leave for its workers.

“We also have family violence leave in the National Employment Standards. Now, who would have thought that the current Liberal-Coalition government would amend the National Employment Standards to include an extra entitlement?”

Natalie says the leave in the National Employment standards is unpaid but “we won’t rest until that becomes 10 days’ paid leave. So this campaign absolutely continues”.

“Paid family leave is an entitlement that does and will save lives. It is also core on what we are 
as unionists.”