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OP-ED: In the time of work from home and heightened domestic violence, what can an employer do to create safe workplace?

  • Published at 04:58 pm February 2nd, 2021
Work from home

The impact of abuse beyond the workplace has indeed become an important issue for employers, seeing how lines today are blurred between personal and professional lives

The global coronavirus pandemic has brought about some disruptive changes in the way we work and challenged our conventional ways to a great extent. 

The world might have paused for a while, but everyone quickly realised that the workplaces of today are far more adaptive and agile than ever before. 

The pandemic has shed light on new ways of working while highlighting the fact that employees don't always need to be physically in the office to be productive. With the ‘new normal,’ the home is indeed an extended workplace.

With the massive shift in our working styles, employers are focusing on important concerns such as how we should maintain productivity, engagement and organisational culture in a “Work from Home” environment. 

Also, the focus has been on creating a support structure for remote workers juggling between responsibilities at home. 

However, there is another issue weighing on some of our minds and hearts as well.  

While it is a moral and legal obligation of employers to ensure a safe workplace, how can they also keep their employees safe in their own homes? Many who experience abuse at home or are victims of domestic violence view work as a haven from abuse.

According to global estimates published by the World Health Organisation, about 1 in 3 of the women worldwide have experienced either physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence in their lifetime.

Alarmingly, amidst the pandemic, domestic violence has increased greatly. 

Restricted movement, social isolation and deteriorating mental health are increasing women’s vulnerability to violence at home around the world. 

Needless to add, unpaid domestic and care work has intensified for both men and women during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, women continue to do bear the maximum onus. 

A survey by UN Women in Asia and the Pacific in April 2020 found that informal job losses have ranged from 25 to 56 per cent and those in the formal sector have been working fewer hours since the pandemic began.  

The consequent reduction in household income also creates financial strain that may further increase the incidence of domestic abuse. 

This may be aggravated by a lack of adequate social safety net in the country coupled with inaccessibility to mental health counselling. 

Violence against women and girls in Bangladesh appears to have increased during the pandemic with non-governmental organisations’ hotlines reporting a rise in distressed calls. 

For instance, the human rights and legal services program of BRAC noted a nearly 70 per cent increase in reported incidents of violence against women and girls in March and April 2020 compared with the same time last year.

To combat domestic violence nationally, Bangladesh offers support services in both government and non-government sectors, which includes shelter homes, support centres for victims, one-stop crisis centre, a national helpline, and, of course, law enforcement. 

However, due to low awareness, people may not be familiar with the services at their disposal in times of need. 

From a legal lens, in the space of gender-based violence, Bangladesh has a specific law: The Domestic Violence (Prevention and Protection) Act 2010 (DV Act). However, there is no particular policy dedicated to this agenda yet. 

In such a scenario, the role of the employer therefore takes centre stage. 

The impact of abuse beyond the workplace has indeed become an important issue, recognising how lines today are blurred between personal and professional lives. 

Lack of a support structure hinders their full and active participation at work, as many end up leaving their jobs. 

It can also affect the safety of victims and others in the workplace, including co-workers, employers, patients or customers.  

Hence, in no way, can an organisation delay to address matters surrounding domestic abuse among employees. 

Recently, Unilever Bangladesh, in alignment with their global initiative, has introduced two progressive employee policies on prevention of sexual harassment (POSH) and to support survivors of abuse beyond the workplace. 

The latter policy on supporting survivors of domestic abuse is the first-of-its-kind in Bangladesh, setting a benchmark for Unilever’s corporate leadership and responsibility. 

While awareness and education at a national level are of paramount importance, Unilever believes in establishing concrete and effective measures to address the matter internally while also ensuring gender-neutrality. 

One might think that domestic violence is only prevalent in certain economic strata and therefore question the relevance of these policies in the corporate world. The truth is far from it. 

While the reported numbers in educated, more affluent economic segments might appear low but it is definitely not right to assume that vices of this society don’t transcend our pre-defined social classes. 

The domestic abuse survivors’ policy in Unilever Bangladesh aims to be a haven to victims of both physical and emotional domestic abuse. 

Employees who are victims of such abuse and violence can have medical care and psychological counselling support for themselves and their families. 

Moreover, employees can avail up to 10 days of paid leave and have the flexibility of working from any Unilever site in the country for the period. 

With the right policies, mindset and culture in place, work can often be a sanctuary and lifeline for employees in tough times. 

I strongly feel that there’s never ‘better time’ to make a positive change that impacts lives. If not now, then when? And this is how we necessitate an equal sun for unequal leaves.

Sakshi Handa is the HR director of Unilever Bangladesh

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