International Women’s Day (IWD) arrives yet again on March 8, presenting another opportunity to reflect on the status of gender equality in our society. This year has already been galvanized by powerful movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, which clearly demonstrate an amplified interest in progressing issues related to gender equality. Quite appropriately, the theme of IWD this year is #PressforProgress, calling on the community to advance efforts in all areas on gender-inclusive action worldwide.
Recalling that International Women’s Day was born out of women’s labour struggles at the turn of the twentieth century in North America and Europe, it is time to return to these roots. Despite many achievements in women’s equality in the labour sector, we must press for progress on remaining shortcomings, particularly in our own province.
Many women continue to face discrimination and unfair working conditions in Ontario. In fact, precarious employment overall has increased in Canada by nearly 50 per cent in the last 20 years, and women are overrepresented in the population that faces such conditions. Research shows that racialized immigrant women specifically experience a higher burden of precarious employment in the province. As children of working immigrant women, this is a reality we have seen first-hand.
Ontario is still far from where it needs to be when it comes to equity in the labour sector. As public health students, our work entails closely reviewing the evidence linking working conditions to ramifications for health and wellbeing. Governed by provincial labour policy, employment and working conditions directly influence health by determining individuals’ income, which ultimately dictates the affordability of aspects of healthy living such as nutritious foods, stable housing, and medication. Additionally, flexibility in working hours and access to paid leaves affect people’s ability to look after themselves in times of illness. Research shows that having insecure and precarious employment results in anxiety and greater social isolation.
Fortunately, some progress has been made in this area. In November 2017, the Fair Workplaces, Better Jobs Act, or Bill 148, was passed in Ontario, with many of its measures implemented in January 2018. Some of the changes brought about by this bill include the increase in minimum wage, equal pay for equal work regardless of employee status, and an increase to a total of 10 days of emergency leave per year, two of which are paid at employee’s regular rate. It is also inclusive of new scheduling practices around shift changes and cancellations, ensuring that employees are given fair notice.
The bill is definitely a step in the right direction — it is progress on labour rights for all in Ontario. But for women, who form the majority of those in precarious forms of work, there is more to be done. This is especially true in certain industries. For instance, the caregiving sector, primarily made up of women, is overwhelmingly susceptible to precarious working conditions. It is often low-wage with no flexibility in scheduling, not to mention that it is mentally and physically exhausting given the emotional toll that caregiving can take. This sector is also highly racialized, as immigrant and racialized women are often pushed into caregiving jobs.
Despite these struggles, however, workers in caregiving in private homes and in other sectors are banned from forming a union to collectively advocate for improved standards and working conditions. Currently, exemptions and regulations in other legislations like the Labour Relations Act and the Employment Standards Act exclude workers in certain sectors and of certain origins from the right to unionize.
Current efforts to improve working conditions through Bill 148 can only be successful if they are implemented well. This includes ensuring that employees are aware of new changes and that they are also well-equipped with support and information in the event that this legislation is not being adequately applied in their workplace. Migrant workers, for example, are specifically vulnerable, as they may be repatriated by exploitative employers if they complain.
With this year’s IWD theme being ‘pressing for progress,’ the time is right to insist on improving working conditions for women in Ontario. While there is much to celebrate in terms of labour rights in the province, we should be cognizant of the many changes that still need to be made.
It is also important to be critical and push for change not only on IWD, but all year round — especially in light of the provincial election in June and the potential implications its outcome may bring for Bill 148 and gender equality in women’s everyday lives. As young people, if we want a more progressive and equitable society, we should celebrate achievements in the labour sector for women on March 8, but continue to press our politicians on this cause going forward.
Sandani Hapuhennedige and Afnan Naeem are Master’s students at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health and steering committee members of the Decent Work and Health Network.