‘If you work with people, you work with victims of domestic abuse’

UNISON hosted a panel event on empowering victims and survivors of domestic abuse in the workplace, with speakers including MP Jess Phillips

UNISON has marked the union’s role in helping to introduce new measures to help protect the victims of domestic violence, as it hosted a panel event on empowering victims and survivors of domestic abuse in the workplace.

Part of last week’s Empowering Women in UNISON – Live!, the event was chaired by national women’s committee chair Emma Procter and featured powerful speeches from MP Jess Phillips (pictured), NEC member Pat Heron and the head of policy for the domestic abuse commissioner, Hannah Gousy.

For Ms Phillips – the shadow minister for domestic violence and safeguarding – the event was an opportunity to celebrate her and UNISON’s recent joint success in introducing workplace protection measures to the domestic abuse bill.

“Domestic abuse protection orders, or DAPOs, are a new tool that allow police and family courts to instigate an order that means a perpetrator, for a specific period, cannot go near a victim or her address.

“Initially, they covered walking to work, but actually didn’t include the workplace. So we worked to amend the legislation.”

And Ms Phillips continued: “The idea that women’s policy needs to extend to the workplace is something we have to remind people of. Furthermore, this specific issue was seen to be tricky and contentious because workplaces are where some people’s relationships start. So a perpetrator and a victim may be working together, and the government thought that issue was too difficult to touch.”

She noted that, when a government feels that way, “it’s resolved by victims stepping backwards or having to handle the situation alone.

“I’m very pleased to say that the amendments I made, along with UNISON, will be included. We will save people’s lives because of that campaigning.

“Violence against women protections aren’t a special add-on. They’re fundamental to worker’s rights. If you work with people, then you work with victims of domestic abuse.”

NEC member Pat Heron, who also sits on UNISON’s national women’s committee, described how she had supported a member in the situation Ms Phillips described.

“I had a member I represented whose partner held a knife to her throat. She had left him, but they still worked together, and the CPS wouldn’t take the case. She contacted us because she’d been told by her manager that she must work alongside her husband, who she was separated from … because she was a professional, and at all times, keep that professional mannerism when she was in any meetings with him.”

Ms Heron said that, when meeting the employer, she asked what they knew about domestic abuse and what they were asking the member to do. “It was clear they didn’t understand. They eventually listened to us and moved him to another role in the trust.

“Sadly, at the end, the member sent me a lovely letter, but she left the job saying she could no longer work for an employer who had those views.

“It’s our role as union activists to ensure that domestic abuse is in the light and stays there,” noted Ms Heron, adding that it is a health and safety issue.

“I’m a health and safety auditor and rep. It’s part of my role to privately ask staff how they are, and if they have any issues.”

Speaking about the role of employers in responding to domestic abuse, Ms Gousy said: “Workplaces can be an absolute lifeline for survivors. They can be a place of respite and safety. But employers who fail to understand the dynamics of domestic abuse can add to the anguish felt by survivors.

“Despite over two million adults being subjected to domestic abuse, it’s still a hidden crime. An employer who understands these dynamics can proactively help to spot signs, and make someone feel supported to come forward. Yet only 5% of employers have specific domestic abuse guidelines.”

Ms Gousy recommended that UNISON activists look at the Employers’ Initiative on Domestic Abuse, which already works with over 400 employers, across 40 industries.

“Some of the things that employers can easily offer are flexible working arrangements, or paid domestic abuse leave so staff experiencing abuse can have paid leave for court dates and appointments. Also, employer loans that work in the same way as season tickets, can provide people with the funds to be able to leave a situation and rent a new flat.”

Concluding the event with a message of empowerment, Ms Heron declared: “As a union, we have to move forward collectively, together and alongside specialist women’s services. I know this union is made up of so many phenomenal women.”