Image: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Work performed by women and migrant workers is often considered less important, inconsequential to the health of the economy, and deserving of minimal pay and benefits. Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare just how invaluable these workers are.

The need for meaningful structural and financial reforms across employment sectors dominated by women and migrant workers is now front and centre. This is the time to re-evaluate priorities, initiate long overdue changes, and enforce existing legislation to better reflect the import roles these workers play in our everyday survival.

From mid-September to December every year, Canadian women in the labour force essentially work for free because of the gender pay gap. Over the length of a career, that’s equivalent to working 13 years without receiving a single pay cheque.

Despite equal pay for work of equal value being a fundamental human right which has been protected under section 11 of the Canadian Human Rights Act (CHRA) since 1977, only six provinces have specific pay-equity legislation and most don’t enforce it.

According to 2016 census data, women across Canada face an average 32 per cent pay gap. However, the gap increases according to the amount of discrimination and marginalization women face in the workforce:

  • Racialized women: 40 per cent gender pay gap
  • Indigenous women: 45 per cent gender pay gap
  • Immigrant women: 55 per cent gender pay gap
  • Women with disabilities: 56 per cent gender pay gap

Women dominate work that doesn’t necessarily fit the traditional Monday to Friday, nine to five mold. They often work shifts; are purposely given part-time hours so employers won’t have to pay benefits; and often work more than one or two jobs just to make ends meet.

These precariously employed workers are the life force holding Ontario together during COVID-19. Their contributions are so monumental that they have been deemed essential workers. But, with their lives literally on the line, they deserve so much more, including better pay with benefits, paid sick days, access to employment insurance benefits (EI) and the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB); as well as personal protective equipment.

Here’s a list of front-line jobs dominated by women compiled by Faraday Law for the Broadbent Institute:

  • Nurses (RN, NP, RPN, psychiatric nurses), 92 per cent
  • Medical lab technicians, 80 per cent
  • Respiratory therapists, 75 per cent
  • Personal support workers, 90 per cent
  • Child care, 99 per cent
  • Community and social services, 75-80 per cent
  • Cashiers, 84 per cent
  • Food prep/service, 72 per cent
  • Cleaners, 71 per cent

Women also make up 70 per cent of precarious workers and are at greater risk of being laid off due to COVID-19.

In 1987, Ontario passed the Pay Equity Act to ensure employers paid women and men equal pay for work of equal value — including jobs that may be very different but of equal or comparable value. Since the Mike Harris government, no real gains have been made.

However, one thing is clear, the gender pay gap is not a myth and the current Ontario government is intent on taking actions that are widening the pay equity gap.

Since March the Ontario government has enacted three emergency orders overriding certain provisions of the collective agreements that the Ontario Nurses’ Association (ONA) had in place. The Ford government also imposed a one per cent wage cap that was to apply to certain public-sector employees, including nurses. However, police officers, a decidedly male-dominated profession, were given a 2.8 per cent wage increase.

A long list of unions have filed Charter challenges against Bill 124. However, Ontario Nurses Association president Vicki McKenna says “The ONA is challenging the one per cent cap based on charter grounds, including gender discrimination.”

The ONA is currently involved in a 14-year long battle to maintain pay equity for registered nurses (RNs) working in private nursing homes without access to male comparators in their workplaces. The mostly private-sector jobs are undervalued and under-compensated.

Private, for-profit retirement homes adopted the practice of hiring nurses and personal support workers on a part-time basis to avoid paying them benefits. This practice has meant the majority of women working in this field work at two to three different institutions just to make ends meet.

This drive to minimize wages and dodge benefits just to increase profits and stock dividends likely contributed to the extraordinary number of COVID-19 outbreaks and related deaths occurring in private long-term care facilities across the province and country.

Care workers in private homes are now being told they can’t leave residences because their employers fear these employees will bring the virus into homes. This means care providers are not only isolated, but always on call and prone to a variety of abuses.

On February 19, 2020, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario issued a groundbreaking decision ordering the Ford government, and in particular, the Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, to increase the wages of Ontario’s 963 midwives 20 per cent retroactive to 2011. In addition, eligible midwives were also awarded $7,500 each for “injury to dignity, feelings and self-respect.”

The tribunal found that the midwives’ compensation was disadvantaged because the work is so deeply associated with women.

The Ford government is appealing the tribunal’s decision. It has also asked the court to “stay” the implementation of the tribunal’s remedy order to pay midwives fairly, stating it is not able to fulfill its obligation to comply with the order in a timely way due to the COVID-19 crisis.

This is ironic since, given our current state of emergency, many women would prefer to give birth in a birth centre or at home, and midwives are the only professionals who are able to provide these services.

In addition to the depth and breadth of their services being expanded and in higher demand during the pandemic, midwives who work both within hospital and community settings are so often overlooked that they are not issued personal protective equipment (PPE). The Association for Ontario Midwives (AOM) had to put out a call to the public to ask for PPE donations that are being distributed sparingly.

Elizabeth Brandeis, former president of AOM and a practising midwife says:

“By delaying implementation of the Tribunal’s remedial orders until the release of the Divisional Court’s decision, government is condemning midwives to continue to work under discriminatory conditions. The affront to our dignity, and economic and material wellbeing is made worse by the fact that we are being asked to do our part in the health crisis by expanding our workload and radically adapting the way we work, as well as by putting our lives at risk, and the lives of our families, in providing obstetrical and newborn care without appropriate PPE.”

The pay equity case launched in 2013 by the AOM alleged Ontario failed to ensure that midwives’ compensation remained aligned with the salaries of family physicians working in community health centres. According to Brandeis, “Midwifery is the most sex-segregated of all professions.”

Access to free 24/7 child care is indispensable to all women-dominated professions. Ontario Coalition for Better Child Care (OCBCC) public policy and government relations coordinator Carolyn Ferns explains, “Educators will be vital when child care centres reopen. They will need to help traumatized kids by instilling hope for the future.”

Their mothers still working on the front lines will also need reliable child care to continue to work. It’s time for a national child-care plan that is affordable and available to all working women.

COVID has also brought to light a segment of the workforce that has been overlooked and neglected for decades, but without whom this country could not function. There are currently 1.8 million migrant and undocumented workers in Canada working on farms, in the food industry and providing care for our children and elderly.

The conditions under which migrant workers live and work puts them at greater risk from the novel coronavirus, especially when they are unable to access personal protective equipment and universal health care. Migrant workers pay into EI but in most cases are unable to access EI, and cannot access CERB. Undocumented workers have no records which means they’re also unable to access social safety nets.

Syed Hussan, executive director of Migrant Workers Alliance for Change, asserts:

“In a public health emergency, we cannot protect anyone if we do not protect everyone. Hundreds of thousands of workers without income support are in a state of abject despair and immediate comprehensive government action is necessary, Most migrant and undocumented people are essential workers that are caring for all of us – they cannot be allowed to go hungry and die because they don’t have an active Social Insurance Number. We have a solution and are calling on the government to meet with us to ensure migrants get the support they need now and ensure permanent resident status for all in the future.”

The Migrant Rights Network and the Migrant Workers Alliance for Change would like to see changes made so that migrant and undocumented workers without valid SIN have access to CERB; paid sick days and emergency leave; and access to health-care services. These groups would also like to see a moratorium on detentions and deportations.

The Migrant Worker Health Project founded by infection control and occupational health experts at Wilfred Laurier University provides evidence-based educational initiatives that describe barriers to healthcare and service providers, and facilitate collaborative identification of strategies to increase migrant workers’ access to healthcare services and workers’ compensation.

The initiative is dedicated to the memory of Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, a migrant agricultural worker from Mexico who died from COVID-19 in Norfolk County, Ontario.

To really help Canadians, CERB needs to be extended to cover the full length of the lock down and then rolled into a monthly universal national dividend — also referred to as a universal basic income.

The Ontario government should immediately top up EI, Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW) payments to match CERB. The provincial government then needs to provide seven paid sick days for every worker in the province as well as an additional 14 paid days during times of pandemic. They should also be receiving benefits pro-rated to the hours worked rather than being locked out of benefits completely when working less than full-time hours. All of these changes should remain in place on a permanent basis after this crisis has passed.

Migrant workers, cashiers, cleaners, PSWs, laundry workers in long-term care facilities and hospitals, and all the women we now call invaluable front-line workers should at least be earning a living wage for the work they perform.

It’s great that during COVID-19 people are finally acknowledging the importance of the work that women and migrant workers do. But it’s essential that their labour be assigned a monetary value that reflects the true importance not only during what is perhaps our most vulnerable time in modern history, but also in the post-pandemic restructuring.

Doreen Nicoll is a freelance writer, teacher, social activist and member of several community organizations working diligently to end poverty, hunger and gendered violence.

Image: Province of British Columbia/Flickr

Doreen Nicoll

Doreen Nicoll is weary of the perpetual misinformation and skewed facts that continue to concentrate wealth, power and decision making in the hands of a few to the detriment of the many. As a freelance...