Job losses have been linked to a rise in domestic violence rates in a new analysis of the impact of a major downturn in the steel industry.
The Illawarra Legal Centre has identified a 16 per cent increase in calls from victims of family and domestic violence during the last major downturn at Bluescope Steel when 1500 jobs were lost.
A high proportion of people seeking help from the centre are dealing with employment issues including unlawful termination of jobs and discrimination in the workplace.
Illawarra Legal Centre solicitor Karyn Bartholomew said the service was critical for many people who could not afford the high cost of private legal representation.
"The fact that this is one of our biggest areas of demand suggests there is an unmet need for legal services in the community around this issue," she said.
"People often decide to settle early, even when they have strong legal grounds to pursue the matter further, because they can't afford to keep on fighting it.
"People are compromising their rights because it's such a difficult area and heavily weighted in favour of employers, who often have the benefit of an employer organisation to back them up. That's where we come in. We're free, and we take it and run it."
The centre is expecting it will have to start turning away 465 people a year after a federal budget cut is felt next year.
Jane Smith (not her real name) was made redundant in 2014 at age 62 after 17 years with the same employer.
ILC briefed a barrister to give Ms Smith advice and represented her at a conciliation conference in the Australian Human Rights Commission and negotiated a settlement.
"When I was made redundant I came out feeling like I'd just committed a major crime," Ms Smith said. "I'd put a lot of work and effort into my job and didn't do anything wrong, yet that's how it ended. I became very depressed and getting the proper legal advice from ILC helped settle me down. They got me where I wanted to be and really assisted and supported me. Because of their involvement, I knew that my former employer was taking it more seriously. I was happy with the outcome."
Ms Bartholomew said funding cuts announced in this year's federal budget will take effect in July.
"If the cuts go ahead, we will lose our capacity to do a meaningful level of casework and would effectively be reduced to a phone advice service," she said. "It would put the weight of advantage firmly with employers where unlawful terminations are concerned. It would mean that many employees would never really be able to enforce their legal rights and entitlements."
South Coast Labor Council secretary Arthur Rorris has been campaigning for governments to use Australian-made steel as part of its procurement process. A bill for local procurement has passed through the NSW upper house and the lower house is expected to vote on it in coming weeks.
Mr Rorris said NSW Premier Mike Baird was resistant to the bill.
"Even though it is still open, Bluescope is still pressing ahead with job cuts continuously. We've got an ongoing downward spiral in terms of our traditional industries and these things are combined with the one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the country," Mr Rorris said.
"There is clearly a link between intergenerational employment issues which have emerged in the Illawarra and other regions where you have had a decline in traditional industries over time and social problems such as domestic violence."
Dominic Perrottet, Minister for Finance, Services and Property, said the state government supported the steel industry and the people it employs with a $73 billion infrastructure program, making it one of the largest buyers of steel in Australia.
He said the proposal to force the government to use exclusively Australian steel for infrastructure projects was short-sighted, would come at a massive cost to taxpayers and would not overcome the global challenges the industry is facing.
"It would breach the terms of Australia's trade agreements, placing Australian exports in jeopardy. That's why the government cannot support this bill," he said.
Last year, the government provided a three-year, $60 million payroll tax support package for BlueScope Steel and workers are being offered fee-free vocational and skills training opportunities.
Mr Perrottet said the government is introducing a new standard that will apply to steel used in NSW infrastructure projects.
"We are also ensuring that the high-quality Australian steel produced by our local industry doesn't have to compete with lower quality steel sourced from overseas, through our work with the Australian Steel Institute and Standards Australia to create – for the first time – an Australian standard for the fabrication and erection of steelwork," he said.