Sarah Leamon: Paid leave for victims of sexual violence is deadly serious—and needs to be treated in this way

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      On March 3, 2020, B.C.’s parliamentary secretary for gender equity, Mitzi Dean, announced new legislation to help employees impacted by domestic or sexual violence. The Employment Standards Amendment Act, introduced by Labour Minister Harry Bains, will increase affected workers' benefits, allowing them to take five days paid leave. This can be used to do necessary things like attending medical appointments, seeking therapy, relocating homes, or changing schools.

      It will also extend these rights to the parents of a child or dependent who has been impacted by domestic or sexual violence.

      The government says that it is making these changes in response to a consultation process that drew on the advice of approximately 6,300 British Columbians to find ways to best support survivors of domestic or sexual assault. 

      While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to these complex issues, one important aspect of ensuring support is ensuring a person's livelihood. Job security and financial well-being are two very essential pieces of this complicated puzzle. After all, victims of domestic or sexual violence will be unable to make the practical, logistical changes necessary to escape their abuser and to recover from the trauma that they’ve endured. 

      A 2011 Statistics Canada report on family violence concluded that younger people—namely those under the age of 45—are more likely to experience domestic or sexual violence, as are those with a more limited income. The highest rates of family violence occurred in households with an annual income of less than $30,000. 

      The report also showed that although men reported family violence, the vast majority of victims were women. Moreover, women were more likely to experience more serious violence, including sexual assault, choking, and threats involving the use of a weapon like a knife or a gun.

      Many of the women who find themselves the victim of domestic or sexual violence at home are marginalized and underprivileged. Many of them rely on social services including residential services and emergency shelters.

      In 2012, it was reported that 74 percent of women accessing social services and emergency shelters did so due to abuse, with emotional and physical abuse being cited as the most common forms at home. However, a whooping 37 percent of women also reported financial abuse and 35 percent said that housing issues, including a lack of affordable housing, were factors in their crisis. 

      Clearly, there is a connection between financial hardship and domestic abuse. Financial insecurity not only increases one’s risk for violence at home, it also makes escaping a dangerous situation far more complicated and difficult to navigate.

      Financial security—particularly for women and girls—is an important factor in the fight against domestic violence.

      But when we consider ongoing, deeply rooted societal issues such as the gender wage gap, discriminatory attitudes about women and girls, and the inequitable division of labour at home, five days of paid leave seems like a drop in the bucket.

      It does not come nearly close enough to fixing the persistent, structural problems that underpin domestic and sexual violence.  

      It also puts the onus on employees to essentially out themselves to their employers, coworkers, and the community as victims of sexual or domestic assault. 

      This can be a deeply uncomfortable, stigmatizing, and retraumatizing event. Even with proper confidentiality arrangements in place, the idea of introducing one’s private struggles at work may be too daunting and could ultimately act as a barrier to accessing necessary financial support. 

      Moreover, this benefit will only extend to employees. 

      It thereby overlooks countless victims who are either considered to be contractors or who are self-employed. Oftentimes, these are some of the most marginalized people, who can find themselves in financially precarious positions if they are unable to work as required. 

      On top of that, this new law won’t be doing anything all that revolutionary.  

      Every other province in Canada—with the exception of Alberta—has paid job protections in place for victims of sexual or domestic violence. And amendments to the Employment Standards Act here in B.C. will provide up to 10 days of unpaid leave in similar circumstances. 

      In fact, many of the business owners and employers consulted in the process indicated that they already provide paid leave for employees struggling with these issues. 

      So, while this is a tiny step in the right direction, the formal introduction of five days of paid leave for domestic assault victims still feels more like tokenism than anything else.