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How will Australia respond to that ‘other’ Pandemic?

Lisa Heap

May 12, 2020

The World Bank refers to it as global pandemic affecting 1 in 3 women in their lifetime.  The UN calls it a “Shadow Pandemic”.  Violence against women and girls has in the past been estimated to cost over around US $1.5 trillion and yet the response to this other global pandemic has been nothing like that to COVID-19.  The unprecedented state and federal government response to COVID has been swift and comprehensive.  Organisations have also demonstrated just how quickly work arrangements can be modified and re-organised when the business need calls for it, that is when the alternative is no work will get done.  What COVID has shown us is how innovative and creative we can be when the issue is seen to be important enough, and when it’s not an option to ignore it.

The gendered impacts of COVID-19 have been documented over recent weeks. Women are the frontline of workers disproportionately exposed to COVID as they make up the majority of retail, healthcare, social care domestic and cleaning workers.  Economically they are also hardest hit.  They are the lowest paid. Casual and precarious workers are disproportionately women.  Women are more likely to have lost employment and to fail to qualify for supports like Job Keeper.   As the UN has stated a pandemic amplifies and heightens all existing inequalities.

Many of these workers have been exposed not only to the virus but to violence whilst performing work however this is nothing new. Prior to COVID the violence women experience at work in Australia has been clearly documented.  The National Inquiry into Sexual Harassment in Australian Workplaces reports that sexual harassment at work, a form of gender-based violence, was widespread and pervasive in our workplaces.  The report from this inquiry was released in March this year and now sits with the federal parliament.

So, what can be done?  The federal government should re-open discussions on the 4th National Action Plan under the National Plan to Reduce Violence against women and their children 2010–2022  to take account of the impacts of COVID-19. It should also immediately commit to ratifying the ILO’s recently adopted Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work.  The Convention is a comprehensive framework, agreed to by governments, workers and employers, on the way forward to end all violence, harassment and gender inequality at work.  The Sex Discrimination Commissioner has recommended ratification of the Convention.  Her other recommendations provide a useful starting point for practical change.  Federal and state government, employers and unions should accept these recommendations and work collaboratively to implement them.  Workplace health and safety regulators can also start to stand up by adopting guidelines, such as those recently adopted by WorkSafe Victoria, and putting resources towards  assisting organisations to end gender-based violence at work.  These measures are only a few that could form part of a comprehensive plan to end this other pandemic.

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