Doug Ford has said that he will fight for “the little guy.” But it didn’t seem like he was doing that last week, when the Progressive Conservatives repealed Bill 148 — the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, introduced under the previous Liberal government — in a stated effort to make the province “Open for Business.” It’s a cheery slogan that, in practice, seems to be mostly about eroding workers’ rights. The repeal of Bill 148 means the minimum wage will remain $14 per hour (it had been slated to increase to $15 per hour in 2019). It also means workers will no longer have the right to two paid sick days or to 10 personal-emergency days. Instead, they’ll get three sick days, three family-responsibility days, and two bereavement days — all unpaid. This is bad news for a lot of working Ontarians, but it’s especially bad for women.
Minimum-wage legislation was introduced in Canada a century ago to protect women and children from exploitation. Today, it’s still women who benefit most from wage protection, and who are most at risk of losing out when that protection is undermined. Women make up the majority of minimum-wage earners in this country, and according to Statistics Canada data, more than 60 per cent of women who make minimum wage are either single parents or the sole earners in a couple. That means women are more vulnerable to, as StatsCan puts it, “financial shocks” such as economic recessions and sudden expenses — not to mention wage freezes.
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Women already face considerable barriers to equal participation in the economy. More than 1.9 million women live on a low income, including 34 per cent of Indigenous women, 23 per cent of women with disabilities, and 21 per cent of women who are visible minorities. A 2018 Angus Reid survey found that 16 per cent of Canadians are “struggling” economically, meaning they have trouble affording basics such as food, utilities, housing, and winter clothing. Of those barely scraping by, 60 per cent are women. And women are also more likely than men to do unpaid work — child care, elder care, housework — which in turn makes them more likely to hold lower-paid and more precarious part-time positions, to turn down opportunities for career advancement, and to exit the workforce altogether.
And, as if that weren’t depressing enough, last year, the World Economic Forum said that it would take an estimated 217 years for women to close the gender gaps in employment opportunities and pay. That seems to indicate things are getting worse: in 2016, the WEF said it would take 170 years. It’s hard to imagine that we’ll ever get there if our governments keep prioritizing corporate interests over women’s ability to participate equally in the workforce and the economy. Even one extra dollar an hour matters. So does the security of knowing you can take a paid day off to care for your sick child or your sick parent. Beyond the obvious practical benefits of such policies, they also tell women that our participation in the workforce is important — that we have value.
Society still has a long way to go in adjusting how women at work are perceived. See, for example, the findings of a 2016 report by the U.S.-based Center for WorkLife Law on caregiver discrimination in the workplace [PDF]. Having examined more than 4,400 cases involving family-responsibilities discrimination — i.e, employees who face discrimination for having caregiver duties — the centre found that pregnancy discrimination still makes up the overwhelming majority of claims. Cases involving failure to accommodate breastfeeding mothers during the workday had risen more than 800 per cent over the previous decade. The report notes that one woman surveyed had been told, “Look, Melissa, you have a child who is medically disabled. You do not belong in the workplace … Go home, stay with your daughter — that’s where you belong, not here.” Another was told that she couldn’t do her job as a co-director while pregnant and consequently was given the option either to leave or to be demoted. And we wonder why so many women feel like they can’t get ahead.
Ford has promised that, in lieu of the minimum-wage hike, those who earn less than $30,000 a year will receive a tax credit. Never mind that studies have shown that increasing the minimum wage would provide more bulk economic benefit — it seems like it’s all about the optics. Taxes = bad. Business = good. But these simple equations gloss over the complex reasons that women lag behind in the economy. If we’re ever to reach gender parity, we need more than blustery campaign promises and business-first policies. Women need real support. We need real economic opportunity. We need a living wage.
Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus. She's the author of F-Bomb: Dispatches from the War on Feminism, published by Goose Lane Editions.