The picture is alarming. The latest report by London’s local authority (GLA) finds that domestic violence against women rose by 57% over the last four years. In Brussels, new figures show 30% of women have been the victim of violence of some form, and 60% have suffered sexual intimidation.
Just two cities – and the figures may be linked to more victims coming forward – but fresh trade union research suggests that violence against women is rising everywhere, regardless of country, class or sector. Brand new Eurobarometer findings indicate that three-quarters of Europeans think domestic violence against women is common, and 86% believe it is most likely in the home.
What is less well recognised is that domestic violence also reaches into the workplace, harming women’s ability to do their jobs, generating sickness and absenteeism, and coming on top of the abuse and sexual harassment that many women encounter from colleagues or superiors. The damage affects individuals, workplaces and economies, and is a major concern for European trade unions. Victims of domestic abuse may face stalking or further harassment from perpetrators as well as difficulties in operating effectively at work, and this impacts on productivity and workplace morale.
Ground-breaking research in Australia revealed that 19% of domestic violence victims continued to suffer abuse in the workplace, through threatening phone calls or emails for example, while in over 11% of cases the abuser turned up at their place of work.
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Of equal concern to trade unions is violence and harassment at work itself, which is a fundamental abuse of women’s rights as well as a question of health and safety. Now the ETUC has undertaken an EU-wide study ‘Safe at Home, Safe at Work’ – the first of its kind in Europe – to investigate the extent and causes of such widespread violence against women and propose ways to eliminate it.
Case studies from 11 countries, together with detailed recommendations, are being presented at a conference in Madrid to coincide with the International Day against Violence against Women, 25 November.
Countering the violence
The event is an opportunity to share pioneering initiatives. In Denmark, for example, the union training body FIU-Equality runs regular training for shop stewards on dealing with domestic violence in the work context. In France, collective agreements with La Poste, Carrefour supermarkets and Peugeot Citroën all address domestic violence. Many trade unions are also working with NGOs to raise awareness and counter all forms of aggression towards women.
Among the recommendations being considered in Madrid are placing women in high-level negotiating positions and encouraging men to champion a zero-tolerance approach, as well as putting pressure on governments to mount tougher action.
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Women workers are particularly at risk of violence and sexual harassment in education, public administration and services, transport and the hospitality sector. But one reason for the increase is the growth in casualisation and precarious working conditions, which affect women and young people most. When workers are isolated and deprived of employment rights they face greater risks of discrimination, violence and harassment. And without security and social protection they are less likely to report abuse because they fear retaliation or dismissal. A French study in 2014 found that 30% of sexual harassment victims had precarious contracts.
With workers increasingly expected to be available round the clock, cleaners, shop workers and others on night shifts find themselves isolated and vulnerable, also when travelling to and from work. Migrant women – often forced to do menial jobs and confront abuse and discrimination – face particularly high risks.
Unions have been aware of the problem for some time. In 2007, the ETUC and the European employers’ organisations signed a joint agreement to combat harassment and violence at work. Action has been launched in the commercial, private security, local government, health and education sectors, where staff also confront violence from customers, clients, patients and pupils.
Taking a stand
But the problem persists. Earlier this year, one of the most extensive studies of sexual harassment at work in Europe, carried out by the British TUC, found that more than half of women had experienced such behaviour. Four out of five never reported it. And although women are not the exclusive victims, 88% of perpetrators are male.
Laws exist – Spain has the strongest legislation in Europe – and all Member States have national action plans to combat violence against women. But they are not applied, or funding for implementation has been slashed due to austerity, and perpetrators are not prosecuted.
Protecting victims of domestic violence in the workplace is a new area for negotiation, but trade unions are determined to take up the challenge through collective agreements with employers at national, sectoral and company levels – as well as proper implementation. Moral and practical support from co-workers can also play a vital role in enabling women to confront or denounce their aggressors. And to break out of abusive relationships, women must have the economic independence offered by secure employment and decent pay.
Taking a stand against domestic violence has clear benefits for employers as well. It improves staff health, motivation and productivity, reduces the costs of absenteeism, and positions companies as responsible employers and desirable places to work.
The ETUC now aims to draw up Europe-wide guidelines for members, and to make combatting violence against women a high priority for future action.