Opinion: Best place on Earth? Not if you’re a working woman

Marjorie Griffin Cohen, economist Professor of Political Science and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University; The Vancouver Sun

B.C.’s official slogan, “The Best Place on Earth,” might be true for some, but it is decidedly untrue for women in the labour force. Despite being a province with a stronger-than average growth rate and more millionaires per population than any other province, these economic strengths do not trickle down to women.

B.C. lags behind the rest of Canada in the earnings women receive from paid work. During the 1980s and ’90s, working women in B.C. received $300 to $400 less per year than the Canadian average female earnings. But in the 21st century things have become worse, and the difference recently escalated to $1,300 less than the Canadian average. This figure compares all female workers, including part-time and full-time workers. The difference is even larger if full-time, full-year work is compared.

In 1998 B.C. women working fulltime earned about $900 more per year than the Canadian average. But by 2003 this had worsened to $800 less than the Canadian average. Unfortunately, the situation has deteriorated since then, so that by 2008 women working full-time in B.C. earned $1,700 less than the Canadian average woman. Men in B.C., by the way, earned $2,500 more than the average Canadian male in the same year.

B.C. women clearly have lost ground relative to men in the province. In 1998, women earned about 74 per cent of what men did for full-time, full-year work, somewhat better than the Canadian average. By 2008 things had turned and B.C. women earned only 66 per cent of what men did, a difference that is 5.4-per-cent less than the Canadian average ratio of female to male earnings.

There are reasons why B.C.’s economic advantages are not spread more widely among the people in the province and why women fare particularly badly. These reasons mostly relate to government policy toward labour.

Two things stand out. One is a low wage approach that has been put into effect by a variety of policies. The most striking is the province’s very low minimum wage, which is now at $8 per hour, the lowest in the country.

While relatively few workers (2.3 per cent) are now at the minimum wage, a relatively large proportion of workers, 13 per cent, earn below $10 per hour, which is not a living wage anywhere in B.C. Most of these very low-wage workers are female.

The second major low-wage policy is the government’s increased privatization of work in the public sector. This was dramatized soon after the election of the current government when more than 8,000 hospital support workers lost their decent-paying jobs as their work was privatized. The vast majority of these workers were females, and a disproportionate number were immigrants and older women. If they were re-employed by the private sector (not all were re-employed) their wage dropped by as much as 40 per cent.

Many small changes to Employment Standards legislation also affected women’s income. For example, employers no longer need to guarantee four hours of work when they call out workers: the requirement has been dropped to two hours. Workers can also now work up to 12 hours a day without receiving overtime.

Eliminating discrimination in the workforce was an important feminist project in the 20th century, but women in B.C. have lost protections on this score. Unlike most provinces in Canada, B.C. has never had pay equity legislation. This means large wage discrepancies only get addressed through trade-union bargaining, and as more public-sector jobs are privatized, fewer problems of this type get resolved….