“Nobody would say that violence in the workplace is acceptable. That’s why this ILO convention is so crucial”

Original Article: Tamara Gausi, Equal Times | Jan. 26, 2018

Marie Clarke Walker is secretary-treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). Ahead of this year’s International Labour Conference, where a watershed discussion on the adoption of an ILO (International Labour Organization) convention on ending violence and harassment at work will be taking place at the end of May, and just a few weeks before the International Trade Union Confederation’s 23 Days of Action in support of the said convention, Clarke Walker spoke to Equal Times about why domestic violence is a workplace issue and what unions are doing to end it.

There has been a lot of focus on the subject of gender-based violence recently thanks to social media campaigns such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, but there is still a huge lack of awareness about the issue, particularly when it comes to domestic violence. In what way is domestic violence a trade union issue?

Domestic violence follows its victim everywhere, and if that victim has a job their abuser can do a number of things to make life really miserable for them in the workplace. It is the job of the employer to try and make sure that all workers are safe at work, but it is also the role of trade unions. Health and safety is one of the cornerstones of the labour movement, so we have to ensure that employers provide a safe and healthy environment for workers. This means being free of violence and harassment in all forms.

In 2015, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) undertook some research on domestic violence. What did you discover?

We had some idea but we weren’t entirely sure of how significant the impact of domestic violence in the workplace was until we partnered with Western University to do a survey.When we got the numbers back there were some pretty shocking statistics. For example, two-thirds of people in the workplace had experienced some sort of violence or knew someone who had. Some 33.6 per cent of respondents said they had experienced domestic violence, with indigenous women being the worst affected. Also, 35.4 per cent of respondents reported having at least one co-worker who they believed were experiencing violence and 11.8 per cent reported that they had at least one co-worker who they believed were being abusive – meaning you have both the people who are being abused and their abusers in the workplace.

On that last point: late last year Canadian researchers looked into the impact of domestic violence on the workplace by speaking to the perpetrators of domestic violence. What was the thinking around this?

If you know that someone is being violent, and they are not getting the help they need, the violence just gets worse. Also, while we in the workplace are not necessarily experts on this issue, we can have conversations that will encourage people to get some help, and we can provide them with a list of resources. We can also give training for stewards and labour leaders as well as those who are on the frontline dealing with abuse every single day. It is also our jobs as unions to make sure that people are aware of what services are available to them and what their rights are.

Can you highlight some of the work that Canadian unions are doing to tackle domestic violence?

We provide education around what domestic violence looks and sounds like, and what resources are out there for people who are experiencing it, whether they are victims or perpetrators. We have also created various pages on our website focusing on the issue of domestic violence at work, from what stewards, leaders and other workers can do to what courses are on offer. We also have an online toolkit, that we are constantly adding to, which people can access whether they are in a union or not. The other thing that we have done is ensure that people get training on putting language in collective agreements that deals with domestic violence at work, and we have examples of modelling that can be used online. There are some unions that are training women’s advocates in the workplace, while other unions, such as the steelworkers’ union, are offering bystander training that targets men. This is important because violence against women isn’t just a women’s issue. All men have a responsibility to speak up and speak to other men when they see this happening.

What about the issue of paid leave?

The issue of paid leave for people that are experiencing domestic violence is very significant. There are many collective agreements that provide for general paid leave but paid leave for domestic violence is key because sometimes all a woman needs is an hour or two to go and find a lawyer, or to go and get her children out of school, and that time needs to be paid. One of the things that keeps women in violent situations is fear of loss of financial stability. Pay equity is also part of the picture. You can’t just look at one piece of the puzzle. The solution to equality in the work place has to be holistic.

We are also trying to convince governments to ensure that there is paid leave for domestic violence. In Canada there are two jurisdictions that provide paid leave for domestic violence victims, Manitoba and Ontario. We are working with women’s organisations in the various provinces as well as nationally to make sure that we continue to push for this. Federally, there is already legislation that provides for days off and support services for victims of domestic violence, but it does not provide for pay.

Late last year the Canadian government proposed legislation to address harassment and violence in federally-regulated workplaces, but there were no real consultations [with trade unions]. As a result, while we have been advocating for paid leave, proposals to provide 10 days of unpaid leave for victims of domestic violence were rammed through. It also included an exception, which we also opposed. The exception was that no one who was charged with domestic violence could receive this leave. But the problem is that in many cases, police will charge both the person who suffered the violence and the perpetrator. This could have been dealt with by using different language, however, they have made no amendments. Going forward, our hope is that the provinces that are still considering domestic violence leave will ensure that it is paid and that all victims will be allowed to receive it.

How important is an ILO standard on ending violence and harassment in the workplace?

It is extremely important. Some people may think that the issue of violence and gender-based violence is addressed by other conventions and recommendations, but a stand-alone convention and recommendation is essential given everything that we are going through today. I believe that the ILO, as the UN labour organisation, has a responsibly to bring that forward, and all governments, employers and workers have a responsibility to ensure that work is safe for everybody who goes there. Everything that has been happening recently, with #MeToo and #TimesUp for example, proves that women are done waiting for others to tell them that it is not ok to perpetrate violence.

My hope is that we will have a new standard going into the centenary celebrations [editor’s note: in 2019, the ILO, celebrates its 100th anniversary] and there will not be this back and forth or lots of arguing over the semantics of this convention. I don’t know anybody – whether they are a worker, an employer or a government official – that would say that violence against men and women in the workplace is acceptable. That’s why this convention is so crucial.

We know that the preponderance of violence happens against women, as well as those who are marginalised – racialised women, indigenous women, women with disabilities, those who work in precarious settings, those on a lower income, those that belong to the trans community. These groups of people suffer too much violence and far too often. We absolutely have to put a stop to it. This convention will let workers know that it is ok to speak up. It is ok to talk about what they are experiencing because governments and employers will actually listen to them and they will take action. The standard is another way to be proactive rather than reacting because by the time that we react, somebody could be dead.