Kaitaia Women's Refuge chief executive Waimaria Veza is welcoming the Domestic Violence — Victims' Protection Bill, which has had its third reading in Parliament, as a game-changer in the ongoing effort to reduce whanau harm in Te Hiku.
The bill aims to strengthen legal protections for victims of domestic violence through a raft of amendments to the Domestic Violence Act 1995, Employment Relations Act 2000, Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, Holidays Act 2003 and Human Rights Act 1993.
One major outcome would be to require employers to pay up to 10 working days' leave per year to domestic violence victims, similar to how sick leave is currently structured.
The bill has ignited robust debate, some warning that the cost to employers, particularly small business owners, could be high, but Ms Veza said it would be welcomed by the 1400-plus women and children who sought help from Kaitaia Women's Refuge in the last financial year, empowering women to leave dangerous situations.
About a third of the women her organisation helped were in paid employment, but they were less likely to seek support for a number of reasons.
"They don't want to tell their employer because they don't want to lose their job. They won't come to us because it costs them money or they can't get the time off work," she said.
Nor did women in employment qualify for financial assistance from other sources, such as WINZ or legal aid, which was a further barrier to escaping harmful relationships.
Financial stressors were further compounded by the clandestine, stigmatised nature of domestic violence, Ms Veza anticipating the bill would represent a significant step forward in creating a safe space to have open, frank discussions in the workplace.
"Imagine the stress that these victims are dealing with at work when something has happened and they can't talk, they can't function? Imagine working in a shop and trying to be a nice retail assistant when you just got beaten up?" she said.
"In this way, at least they're talking about it. They can openly go to their employer, and I think it's going to open up a whole lot of conversations about 'how can we support you to get through this'?"
The bill follows the launch of Whiria Te Muka, an unprecedented partnership between the police and Te Hiku iwi that is designed to reduce and prevent whanau harm. In the first six months of this year kaimahi were notified of 479 incidents involving 1479 people who were directly impacted, and 398 children aged under 14 who had witnessed or heard whanau harm.
Whiria Te Muka co-director Senior Sergeant Geoff Ryan said only one in five family violence cases were reported, however, and those figures significantly under-represented the true contextual picture of what was happening in Te Hiku communities.
He agreed the bill would positively influence more people to seek help.
"If more (incidents) are reported, then that's got to be a positive," he said.
"Helping and enabling whanau to access the support they need at the time they need it has got to be a positive as well. I know that there may be a short-term cost to the legislation, but the long-term benefits should far outweigh any initial costs. Anything we can do to help alleviate the stress or friction point has got to be good for that whanau moving forward."
Northland Chamber of Commerce CEO Tony Collins said the short-term cost of the bill would be carried by employers, particularly those of small owner-operated businesses, reducing their capacity to continue operating productively through times of domestic violence leave.
The size and capability of the business would determine its ability to understand the bill's implications and assess perceived risks, but small business employer-employee relationships had a special dynamic.
"I would imagine many of these businesses, particularly with very low staff numbers, have a strong connection with staff and are fairly responsive to their needs," he said.
WHO TO CALL
If you or someone you know is experiencing whanau harm, contact the police on 111, the Kaitaia Women's Refuge Crisis Line (09 408-2946 or 0800 733-843 — 0800 REFUGE), or the Shine National Helpline on 0508 744-633.
The bill will come into effect on April 1 next year.