Insecure Work and Family Violence
Family violence (or, depending on the circumstances and jurisdiction, domestic violence or intimate partner violence) is an issue which has (rightly) been highly publicised in the Australian media for several years now. Rosie Batty, in particular, has elevated this issue to national prominence following her own traumatic and highly publicised circumstances during 2014. Her recognition as Australian of the Year in 2015 is a testament to her own courage and tenacity as an advocate for those affected by the scourge of family violence.
Family violence does not discriminate. It can be found across all cultures and all socioeconomic backgrounds. While there may be some disagreement about the exact statistics (which are likely also affected by under-reporting of family violence), certain trends are clear. Family violence is an issue which overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) affects women. The ABC’s Fact Check unit reflects other studies in contending that women are victims of family violence three times more than men.
Universities are not immune from what has been described as an ‘epidemic’. It is, however, only in recent years that universities have come to recognise the importance of providing domestic violence leave for their employees. In 2011 Michelle Brocker, an incredibly brave advocate on the issue of domestic violence, led an effort to convince her own university – Swinburne University – to provide this leave. In 2013 the National Tertiary Education Union used International Women’s Day to recognise that domestic violence was not just a social and economic issue, but also an industrial issue. Throughout subsequent rounds of enterprise bargaining, universities saw the merits of this point and included provisions which guaranteed access to domestic violence leave. Unfortunately, like many other workplace rights, this did not extend to casually employed university staff.
There are more than 100,000 casuals employed in the tertiary education sector nationally, forming the majority of academic teaching staff and a high percentage of professional staff. The casualisation of academia is an important issue, and affects both the ability of staff to teach to their full potential, and the quality of the student experience. What is also clear is that there is a gendered dimension to casual work – casually employed staff are more likely to be women. When it comes to family and intimate partner violence, however, one thing is so obvious that it should not need to be stated – casually employed staff are not immune.
Victorian Casuals Council and Domestic Violence Leave
In Victoria, university casuals have organised themselves into the Victorian Casuals Council (VCC). This group of NTEU members meets regularly, and the women members of the VCC decided to lead a campaign on this important issue to coincide with Blue Stocking Week – a week which annually focuses on the role of women in higher education. Such a step is both important and necessary – at the beginning of the campaign only Swinburne University extended its domestic violence leave provisions to casual staff (Deakin University and La Trobe University have subsequently agreed to this provision).
The campaign, calling on university Vice-Chancellors to #makethepledge to extend domestic violence leave to casually employed staff, was recently launched during 2016’s Blue Stocking Week. Liana Papoutsis, a human rights advocate and leading advisor on family violence, gave a powerful speech which highlighted both the importance of leave but also appropriate family violence training at universities. Liana’s expertise was evident – she is currently working with the Victorian Government as a member of the Victim Advisory Support Council and advises the Department of Premier and Cabinet. Michelle Brocker, who was so instrumental in achieving domestic violence leave provisions at Swinburne, also gave a stirring speech which emphasised the absolute necessity of leave for staff affected by domestic violence.
As part of the campaign, letters were sent to university Vice-Chancellors detailing the need for the extension of this provision to casually employed staff so they are able to find safety for both themselves and their families. While the VCC had hoped to announce that Vice-Chancellors had agreed that this leave was important and guaranteed that it will apply to casually employed staff – this was unfortunately not the case. Swinburne University had previously agreed to this right, and Deakin University and La Trobe University have also indicated that they will move to ensure casually employed staff are included. Other Victorian universities (at the time of writing), had unfortunately failed to respond or indicated that this important issue will be put off until future rounds of enterprise bargaining – and by implication bartered for like any other workplace right. This response is disappointing and grossly inadequate, and fails to acknowledge the profoundly difficult circumstances that staff members find themselves in through no fault of their own. It further highlights that to ensure even the most basic and necessary rights for casual staff, collective action to pressure university management is necessary.
While it should not take a highly visible campaign of collective action to move university management into line with broader Australian community expectations, those involved in campaigning for rights and conditions for casual university staff know that even the most sensible, well-reasoned and intelligently argued positions will meet resistance from university managements which seek to deny these rights. Workplace conditions such as domestic violence leave, paid parental leave and even the right to be paid for work performed are resisted at every turn. The #makethepledge campaign highlights clearly that outcomes for casually employed workers need to be secured through collective action, rather than the benevolence or goodwill of university management.
You can support the #makethepledge campaign by signing the petition here.
Dr Lachlan Clohesy is a casual academic who has taught at Victoria University and Swinburne University. He is also a member of the Victorian Casuals Council and works with the NTEU’s SuperCasuals campaign.