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Spousal Abuse And The Workplace: The Unhappy Marriage Between The Victim And Unemployment

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Spousal Abuse And The Workplace: The Unhappy Marriage Between The Victim And Unemployment

By Mark Brown
PRIDE Columnist

Mark Brown 99“[The abuser] would phone my workplace to see what time I had left, and phoned when I arrived to make sure I was actually going to work,” said one participant of a ground-breaking report on the effect domestic violence has on its victim in the workplace.

The 2015 report entitled, “Can Work Be Safe, When Home Isn’t? Initial Findings of a Pan-Canadian Survey on Domestic Violence and the Workplace”, was the result of a joint effort between the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and researchers from Western University.

It was generated from a survey — believed to be the first of its kind in Canada — that studied the effect of domestic violence, when it spills into the workplace.

In total, 8,429 people completed the survey in both official languages., and 95.5 percent responded in English and 4.5 percent in French. The report covers people between the ages of 25 and 64 and reaches across all provinces and territories.

86.1% of the respondents identified as being heterosexual, 18.7 percent identifying as differently-abled and 4.8 percent did not respond to the question about sexual orientation. Those sampled included individuals who were permanently employed, temporarily employed and unemployed.

The study defined domestic violence or spousal abuse as any form of physical, sexual, emotional or psychological abuse, including financial control, stalking and harassment. The definition included occurrences between opposite or same-sex intimate partners, who may or may not be married, common law, or living together. The definition also encompassed situations that continued to happen after a relationship has ended.

The report indicated that just over one third (33.6%) of respondents reported having experienced domestic violence from an intimate partner in the past. Differently-abled respondents, Aboriginal respondents and those who identified as having a sexual orientation other than heterosexual (e.g., lesbian, gay or bisexual) were particularly likely to have reported experiencing domestic violence in their lifetime.

The report also indicates that 35.4 percent of respondents reported having at least one co-worker who they believe was undergoing, or has previously undergone, spousal abuse. On the opposite end of the equation 11.8 percent of the respondents indicated having at least one co-worker who they believe was being abusive, or has previously been abusive, toward his/her partner.

According to the report, each year, Canadian employers lose $77.9 million due to the direct and indirect impacts of spousal abuse, and the costs to individuals, families and society go far beyond that.

Over half (53.5 percent) of those who reported being victims of spousal abuse indicated that at least one type of abusive act occurred at, or near, their place of work. The most common type of incidents were abusive phone calls or text messages and stalking or harassment near the workplace.

When asked how the spousal abuse affected their work performance, 81.9 percent reported that it negatively affected their performance, in many cases due to being distracted, or feeling tired and/or unwell.

Suzette Black (not her real name) is a middle aged, university-educated African Canadian woman and a domestic violence survivor.

When asked how domestic violence affected her employment Suzette responded, “Where do I start. It has caused me shame, embarrassment and, at times, I have feared that it would cost me my job. I work as an office assistant and I remember a time that my husband angrily drove me to work. When I finally got to my office building he would not let me leave the car.  When I finally managed to wrestle my way out of the vehicle he shouted after me, ‘Get back here right now, bitch!'”

She continued, “I saw some of my co-workers turn to look as they were entering the building. I tried to pretend that the irate driver was not talking to me, but then to my horror, he repeated his demand, this time calling me by name. I was scared and embarrassed.  Was he going to come into my office building and strike me in front of my co-workers?”

“Another time, he called me non-stop at the office, because he was convinced that I had not gone to work, but rather I had gone to be with my ‘boyfriend’. When he realized that I was in fact at work he then surmised that my ‘boyfriend’ must work with me. I tried to tell him that I was at work and I could not talk on the phone but he yelled and screamed and threatened that if I hung up the phone he would ‘kill’ me. I did hang up.

“I can’t describe what happened to me when I got home that night. Needless to say, the fear and anxiety that I carried with me throughout the rest of that day, rendered me useless to perform my duties at work,” she added.

“The most common challenge that domestic violence has posed for me at work, is trying to find creative ways to hide bruises and creative stories to explain physical injuries. Black eyes are the hardest to hide or explain. The neck brace was a little easier— ‘car accident’ I had told everyone.

“Has domestic violence affected me in the workplace? It has affected me everywhere, in every way, every day,” Black said.

Barbara Byers is the Secretary-Treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress and the Officer responsible for the Women’s & Human Rights Department, which includes the Domestic Violence at Work file, the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women and more.

When asked what the Canada’s labour movement hopes to achieve by commissioning a study such as this, Byers answered, “The labour movement has done excellent work on the issue of violence against women, and we have done excellent work on issues surrounding workplace safety should there be an ‘outside threat. However, we had not really brought the issues together.

“Our work on the survey, the education work we have taken up, enthusiastically, on education for our members, our leadership, employers; and the legislative changes that are required, brings our anti-violence work and health and safety work together, along with other issues unions work on every day.”

“We want to ensure that workers have protections at work, that they have the supports needed to deal with violence at home and ensure our leaders, at all levels, are equipped to recognize the signs of someone dealing with intimate partner violence and that unions are seen as the people and organizations that can offer the support needed.

“We are working to change laws (health and safety, employment standards etc) and we are providing the tools to create change in our workplaces and our communities,” she added.

Barb MacQuarrie — Community Director of the Centre for Research & Education on Violence against Women & Children (CREVAWC) at Western University — focuses on the development and implementation of evidence-based training and education programs to prevent and respond to violence against women, children and vulnerable adults.

“The work to address domestic violence, in the context of the workplace, grew from recommendations from the Ontario Domestic Violence Death Review Committee (DVDRC), which operates under the auspices of the Coroner’s Office and reviews every death that happens in the province, as a result of domestic violence.

“A consistent finding of the DVDRC was that people, close to victims of domestic homicide, knew that violence and abuse was happening in the relationship, but they didn’t know what to do about it. The DVDRC has made consistent recommendations that neighbours, friends, family members and co-workers be educated about warning signs and risk factors, how to provide a supportive first response to someone experiencing domestic abuse and how to make an appropriate referral to supportive community services,” she said.

When asked if there was a role for governments to play in eradicating domestic violence in Canada, MacQuarrie responded, “Governments have a critically important role in the struggle to eradicate domestic violence. They can pass Occupational Health and Safety legislation, like that in Ontario that recognizes domestic violence as a form of workplace violence and a workplace hazard. They can pass legislation, such as that proposed in Bill 26 in Ontario that makes education about domestic violence in the workplace mandatory. They can pass legislation like that in Manitoba that grants workers the right to both paid and unpaid leave from work if they experience domestic violence.”

The Provence of Manitoba has amended its laws to include up to five days of paid, protected employment leave (and additional unpaid time) if the victim of spousal abuse needs time away from work to access medical attention, counselling, seek legal or law enforcement assistance, relocate, or obtain services from victim services organizations.

Ontario is currently reviewing its laws on this issues.

Some Unions have negotiated spousal abuse provisions in their collective agreements to try to protect members who may be in abusive relationships.

According to the survey, women with a history of domestic violence have a more disrupted work history, and consequently, have lower personal incomes. The report speaks to the lower income being a byproduct of having to change jobs more often and, as such, more likely to be working in casual and part time roles than women without domestic violence experiences. It adds that consistent employment is a key pathway to leaving a violent relationship.

The financial security that employment affords can allow spousal abuse victims to escape the isolation of an abusive relationship, and maintain, as much as possible, their home and the standard of living of both themselves and their children.

“We seek legislative changes that would benefit all workers,” said Vicky Smallman, National Director of Women’s and Human Rights at the CLC, responding to the commonly heard argument that the work done by unions primarily benefit union members.

Vicky elaborated that organized labour seeks “changes to the occupational health and safety acts, as well as paid safe time under Employment Standards. Our survey respondents are primarily union members with good, stable jobs – our survey results show that domestic violence is a huge issue for everyone.

“That one in three statistic is consistent across all cultures, income and education levels, religions, sexual orientations. Some people are made more vulnerable because they face barriers to support.”

The issue of spousal abuse spans far beyond any one race, creed, colour, sexual orientation, tax bracket or language. While there are multiple agencies that support women, who are victims of domestic violence, it should be noted that agencies that provide support for men, who are victims, are few and far between.

To help combat the issue of domestic violence the CLC, along with its Western University’s research partners, have founded an international Domestic Violence at Work Network. The network includes governments, unions, employers, service providers, researchers, and other domestic violence professionals.

Network members share information, pinpoint favorable practices, while supporting efforts to expand awareness and action on domestic violence at work around the world.

If you, or a woman you know, is a victim of spousal abuse and live in Ontario, assistance can be found at The Assaulted Women’s Helpline 1-866-863-0511 or toll free and TTY at 1-866-863-7868. For both female and male victims, in all provinces, support can be found on the services and support of information page of the Canadian Labour Congress’s website.   

Mark Brown is the Chair of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council’s Equity Committee, an Executive Board Member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionist (CBTU), An Executive Board Member of the Labour Education Center and a member of the Toronto Local of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000658149978 Twitter MarkAAABrown

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