Policy Brief Re: Women's Economic Equality Strategy

October 12, 2000


The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) is an independent, non-profit research institute dedicated to producing and promoting economic and social policy research of importance to Canadians and British Columbians. Our activities support the efforts of individuals and organizations working towards social, economic, and environmental justice. We appreciate this opportunity to respond to the Ministry's discussion paper on economic security and pay equity for the women of British Columbia.

"Women's Economic Security and Pay Equity" presents a number of policy options for improving women's independence, security, and influence. As the discussion paper rightly points out, while there has been improvement in the social and economic status of women over the past decade, there is still much that needs to be done to meet the challenge of achieving women's equality. The gap between women's and men's wages remains entrenched, as does women's additional burden of unpaid family and household responsibilities. The CCPA believes there are many steps the Government of British Columbia can and should take towards eliminating the barriers to women's equality.

The Ministry's discussion paper is organized around four themes. We will respond to each of these in turn.

Theme I: Closing the Wage Gap

While there has been some progress over the past decade in narrowing the wage gap between women and men who work full-time, full-year jobs, women in British Columbia still make only 73 cents for every dollar earned by men. As it currently exists, the government's "pay equity policy framework" is far too narrow in scope to be effective. By only comparing workers within bargaining units rather than between bargaining units, the policy does nothing to address the most blatant gender inequities within the public sector. The CCPA calls upon the Government of British Columbia to enact pay equity legislation that would require all employers--in both the public and private sectors--to pay women and men equally for work of equal value. Proactive legislation aimed at employers should also be coupled with a permanent mechanism allowing employees to register complaints.

Women still face significant barriers to career advancement in all fields and to employment in male-dominated occupations. The promotion of employment equity is, therefore, also crucial to achieving economic security for working women. At issue here is not that women need to be encouraged to enter occupations where they have not traditionally been represented. Almost one third of the applicants for work on the Vancouver Island Highway Project, for example, were "equity applicants" before any equity measures were instituted. The real problem to be addressed is that women and members of other equality-seeking groups have been actively discouraged from entering non-traditional occupations. Ensuring that they are fairly treated will require specific, pro-active programs.

The provincial government must implement mandatory employment equity requirements in the public service and in the broader public sector, including private companies that receive government subsidies and contracts. In addition, financial and other supports should be made available to women and other equality-seeking groups pursuing training and education in non-traditional fields. The successful Vancouver Island Highway Project should be used as a model for future equity initiatives in training and hiring. The first of its kind in Canada, this large-scale construction project was accomplished within budget and on time, while at the same time meeting the social objectives of hiring local labour and mounting a significant training program specifically for women and First Nations people. The government is to be commended for the bold equity measures it took in this project, but the success of one project is not enough and should be perpetuated in all future projects. (See Cohen and Braid, 2000, "The Road to Equity: Training Women and First Nations on the Vancouver Island Highway--A Model for Large-Scale Construction Projects," Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.)

The evidence is overwhelming that relying on voluntary compliance for achieving pay equity and employment equity does not work. A voluntary approach relies on good-will, shame, and soft-peddling of equity issues. Six Canadian provinces have already implemented pay equity legislation, and there is no reason not to do the same in British Columbia. Likewise, only an employment equity law that forces employers to abandon discriminatory hiring practices will protect older women, women with disabilities, visible minorities, and Aboriginal women from the systematic discrimination they face, as well as opening up new job opportunities for them.

The government must also acknowledge that growing numbers of women do not have access to standard full-time, full-year employment. Far more women than men are engaged in part-time, temporary, part-year, and contract jobs, as well as self-employment. Many of these jobs do not provide women with the kind of financial security and benefits they need to support their families and provide for their future. As part of a strategy to improve the financial security of these women, the government should implement policies aimed at raising the rate of unionization among women. In British Columbia, women in unions earn an average of $20.82 per hour for full-time work and $18.54 per hour for part-time work, in comparison with $16.59 for full-time and $11.00 for part-time women workers who are not in a union. Amending the provincial labour code to allow for sectoral certification and bargaining would promote meaningful access to collective bargaining for all working women, particularly those in the growing service sector where women's employment is concentrated.

At a more general level, but equally as important, the CCPA calls on the government to take a proactive approach to improving women's paid employment by maintaining a strong and vibrant public sector in this province. The public sector has historically been a source of relatively stable, well-paying jobs for women. Government cutbacks and privatization reduce the pool of good public sector jobs in health care, education, and other social services that fuelled much of the overall improvement in women's average earnings over the past several decades. The government must reverse the trend towards privatization and contracting out of public programs and services.

Theme II: Closing the Poverty Gap

Poverty and inequality have increased in British Columbia over the past decade, and women remain among the poorest of the poor. Current social assistance levels are inadequate to sustain the well-being of those in need and can trap people in a destructive cycle of poverty. Welfare rates must be increased. Benefits should also be improved for social assistance recipients enrolled in education and training programs at both the secondary and post-secondary levels.

The provincial government must also end the clawback of the federal Child Tax Benefit from British Columbia's poorest families. Single-mother families account for more than double the number of other family types on provincial social assistance and continuing to deny them access to this federal support is utterly unjustifiable.

Women with disabilities face enormous challenges in escaping poverty, yet the present system of administering disability income assistance in British Columbia presents significant disincentives and barriers to pursuing post-secondary education. Currently, 75% of all scholarship and other financial assistance in excess of $200 is deducted from students receiving disability benefits. This policy must be immediately amended so that scholarships, fellowships, and grants are no longer classified as "income," and thus students with disabilities will have greater access to the resources they need to complete a post-secondary education and improve their career opportunities, earnings potential, and independence.

Many women are poor because they work in low paying jobs. We commend the government for its recent commitment to increase the minimum wage to $7.60/hour in November, 2000 and $8.00/hour the following year. However, we believe the government should go even further towards reducing the number of working poor in this province by raising the minimum wage to $8.00 an hour immediately, with a view to bringing it up to $9.15 an hour, equivalent to Statistics Canada's low income cut-off based on a 35 hour work week.

Access to decent and affordable housing is also essential to combating women's poverty. The provincial government must expand its support for the development of new social housing, as well as working with municipalities to protect existing rental housing and encourage the legalization of secondary suites in homes.

Theme III: Supporting Women, Children and Families

A comprehensive approach to dealing with women's economic inequality must also recognize that women's financial security is undermined because they must combine paid work with unpaid family responsibilities. At present, the lack of quality affordable child care limits the ability of women to earn wages and support their families. In addition, many government policies--like decisions to lower welfare rates, cut services or increase user fees--have a disproportionately negative impact on women, the vast majority of whom are responsible for caring for children and other members of their family.

Women must have access to high quality affordable child care in order to participate on an equal footing with men in the paid workforce. The BC government has shown great leadership in introducing a new publicly-funded child care program for school-aged children. This is an important first step towards universal public child care, but the program should be expanded to include care for younger children, and to provide child care during evenings and weekends when many low-wage and part-time employees must work. The province must also continue to pressure the federal government to fulfill its long awaited promise of a national child care program.

Increasingly, women are faced with the added burden of caring for elderly family members. The CCPA calls on the government to expand public services, including long term care facilities, home nursing and home support, that enable the frail elderly to live independently in their own homes and communities and ease women's caregiving responsibilities.

Finally, achieving women's equality is directly linked to the "social wage"--the array of public programs and services that enhance income and contribute to the common good. Access to public health care, education and social assistance is crucial to the well-being of women and their families, and to achieving equality between women and men. Public programs that support the overall well-being of women and their families need to be expanded and strengthened.

Theme IV: Increasing Women's Representation in Positions of Influence

The Government of British Columbia is to be congratulated for its accomplishments in improving the representation of women in decision-making positions, particularly in the hiring of Deputy Ministers and in appointments to Cabinet, agencies, boards, and commissions. However, there is still a significant gender imbalance in positions of influence both within government and outside it.

Women's representation in positions of power will only improve once historic barriers to equal participation in all areas of social and economic life are removed. Improving women's influence therefore requires a much broader focus than senior management levels in the public and private sectors. The Ministry of Women's Equality has an important role to play in monitoring all government programs, policies, and legislation with respect to their implications for all women in British Columbia. The Ministry must also ensure that adequate and secure funding is provided to autonomous women's organizations that work to advance women's equality by providing front-line services and/or research and policy development.

The Ministry must also acknowledge the diversity of women by ensuring that public policy responds appropriately to different forms of inequality. The Ministry of Women's Equality also has an important role to play in initiating policy proposals based on the specific needs and unique circumstances of all women in British Columbia. The CCPA supports on-going, broad-based, and meaningful input from the women of this province and their organizations in the Ministry's decision-making processes. To this end, we welcome the establishment of an annual Roundtable on Women's Economic Equality hosted by the Premier and the Minister of Women's Equality.

In Closing

There is a great deal that the government can and must do to meet the challenge of achieving women's equality. We have made a number of concrete recommendations that would have immediate positive effects on the lives of women and their families. The Ministry of Women's Equality and the Government of British Columbia must actively pursue a programme for achieving economic and social justice for the women of British Columbia.