The Ontario government is currently conducting two workplace-related consultations: one on employment law and the other on the gender wage gap. And although these consultations are being organized separately, the two issues are intimately related.
It is a sad fact that women – and racialized women in particular – are more likely to be minimum wage earners than their white, male counterparts. As acknowledged recently in a news release issued by the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, Tracy MacCharles, and the Minister of Labour, Kevin Flynn:
The gender wage gap is a complex issue caused by many factors including workplace discrimination, unequal gender representation in the workplace and a higher proportion of caregiver responsibilities falling to women. All women across the economic spectrum are affected by the wage gap, but the gap is more pronounced for women who are minorities, Aboriginal, newcomers, or living with disabilities.
Because women, racialized workers, and disabled workers face systemic barriers within the labour market they are more likely to work in low wage jobs. And because women continue to shoulder more of the burden for caregiving, women are more likely to work part-time while fulfilling their caring responsibilities. In the absence of a high quality, public, and universally accessible caregiving system and other social supports, women’s choices in the labour market will continue to be limited. Indeed, according to a Statistics Canada report examining data from 2009, women are almost 600% more likely than their male counterparts to work part-time in order to accommodate caregiving responsibilities. An astonishing seven (7) out of every ten (10) part-time workers are women and this ratio has remained stubbornly consistent for the past three decades. It should also be noted that more than one-quarter of these women are working part-time involuntarily, accepting part-time work only because full-time hours are not available.
In this gendered context, it’s not merely the fact of working fewer hours than men that contributes to the gender pay gap as some would have us believe. Statistics show that an hour of part-time work is compensated at a lower rate than an hour of the same work undertaken on a full-time basis. (In the case of temporary agencies, the gap can be as much as 40%.) Additionally, the evidence shows that part-time work offers fewer benefits — even in terms of basic provisions like paid and unpaid leave for vacation, illness or emergency leave. In a recent report published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, economist Sheila Block, shows that in 2014 only about 57% of those earning more than $15 an hour had accessed some measure of paid leave, and that figure drops by more than half, to about 25% (24.9%), for those earning between $11 and $15 an hour. The figure drops even further — to 16.8% — among those earning less than $11 hourly. “Clearly,” as Block states, “the lower the pay, the more likely an Ontario worker must take unpaid time off if needed.” This is not accidental. At present, Ontario has no legislative provision for paid sick leave and – workplaces with fewer than 50 employees are exempted from the legal obligation to provide job-protected unpaid emergency leave – the catch-all provision that supposedly encompasses leaves for personal or family illness and other unforeseen emergencies. At best, workers in low-wage and part-time work lose pay for missing work due to illness; at worst they lose their jobs! Together, these provisions form huge, structural disadvantages for women who are more likely to be the ones forced to choose between their own or their family’s health, their income or their job.
The good news is that none of these structural impediments are inevitable. Indeed, they are easy to fix.
Premier Kathleen Wynne and Labour Minister Kevin Flynn have the means — and opportunity — to make changes to employment and labour laws that would make work fairer for women, racialized workers and those with disabilities. Such changes would be transformative for workers themselves and the families who depend on them. The current and upcoming reviews addressing pay equity and employment and labour law (not to mention the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board system review) gives this government an incredible opportunity to make urgently-needed changes to Ontario’s labour, employment and health and safety laws. As Tracy MacCharles, the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, notes: “Our government recognizes that when we are all treated equally, we all benefit.”
We urge Premier Wynne and Labour Minister Flynn to turn words into deeds by making these five easy changes to the Employment Standards Act and other relevant legislation as a down payment on its commitment to equity in the workplace:
- Increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all workers and ensure the legal minimum applies to all workers, regardless of their occupation, age, or student status.
- Ensure that part-time workers are paid at least the same wages and benefits as their full-time counterparts, regardless of whether these workers are employed directly or indirectly through a temporary agency.
- Mandate a minimum of seven (7) days per year of paid sick leave for all workers.
- Enforce employment laws proactively using workplace inspections and third-party complaints; protect workers who stand up for their rights in the workplace, whether such workers are refusing unsafe work, standing up against sexual harassment, or forming unions; and impose meaningful penalties on employers who violate the law, including adequate compensation to the workers who have been legally wronged.
- Stop the exemptions to the law that leave workers in certain occupations without legal protections, close loopholes that allow employers to evade their responsibilities by using temporary agencies or sub-contractors and put an end to unfair competition that pits unscrupulous employers against those who pay their workers fairly.
To get involved in the Fight for $15 and Fairness, or to email Labour Minister Kevin Flynn visit: www.15andFairness.org.
Pam Frache, Worker’s Action Centre