By Marjorie Griffin Cohen
Women in B.C. may well decide who becomes the next premier. According to a recent Ipsos Reid poll, most are not inclined to support Christy Clark, and this could make all of the difference in the election. There is much speculation about why Clark is having such trouble with female voters. These explanations sometimes relate to the economy (women do not rate economic performance as highly as men), or to women’s “quirks” (women are less forgiving about Clark’s mistakes), or to their disapproval of her style of leadership.
These are simply guesses and, while some may have a ring of plausibility, there is a more obvious explanation. In general, women have fared poorly under the governments of Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark, and many would have noticed this in their paychecks.
The problem is evident when comparing the earnings of B.C. women with women in the rest of Canada. The average earnings for all women in B.C. in 2010 (last available data) were $2,700 below the national average for women in Canada. In both B.C. and Canada, wages (adjusted for inflation) have improved slowly over the past two decades and the income gap between women and men has been reduced a little. But throughout the 21st century’s first decade, B.C. women’s average earnings have remained substantially below the national average, whereas women in B.C. used to track the national average for most of the 1990s. Women’s earnings also lag far behind men’s. On average they earn only 65 percent of male earnings, while the figure for all women in Canada is 68 percent.
For women working full-time, full-year, the picture is somewhat better than the average for all women (including part-time workers), although for all but three years in the decade this group of working women in B.C. received less than the national average.
The low earnings of women in B.C. may be partially explained by economic recessions that have different effects on provinces, but in B.C. economic recovery did not improve women’s earnings relative to the Canadian average, as could have been expected. This is probably because of significant public policy changes that have restrained wages in B.C.
When the current government was elected in 2001, it began concerted efforts to make labour more “flexible” and responsive to employers’ needs. It also instituted measures to reduce what it considered to be a high wage economy. The effect on labour was direct and brutal and it often had the effect of targeting women. These changes mostly related to the minimum wage, contracting-out, changes in labour legislation to favour employers, and changes to other programs for women.
Since women predominate among low-wage workers either at or near the minimum wage, keeping the minimum wage at $8 an hour for 10 years affected them. So too did the $6 “training wage”, for the first 500 hours of work. While designed for teenagers, it also affected female immigrants. Christy Clark did change this in 2011 and the minimum wage is now $10.25, but it is still far below a living wage, and there is no plan for future increases.
Direct government action negatively affected the wages of public sector workers, who are predominately women. Early in the mandate the government rescinded a collective agreement and privatized many hospital jobs, an action that affected more than 8,000 workers, most of whom were women. The wages of these workers dropped dramatically and many lost their jobs altogether.
Other unprecedented legislation made the work of teachers an essential service, which affected their right to bargain on issues like wages and class size. The majority of teachers are women. In 2009 a two-year wage freeze was instituted for all public sector workers. Also, the reduction in labour standards affected many women’s ability to work. One of the most difficult changes was the elimination of the requirement for 24-hour notice of shift change, but also significant was the reduction in minimum work shift times from four to two hours. These changes are hardest on women with childcare to organize.
Many programs and institutions that supported women were either eliminated or dramatically underfunded. Included in this was any capacity the government had for dealing with women’s issues by eliminating the Ministry for Women’s Equality and the Human Rights Commission.
Christy Clark has initiated both a “families first” policy and policies to increase employment in the province. Until these kinds of programs are designed to recognize the needs of working women, and have specific goals to improve women’s wages, women in B.C. will continue to trail the nation in earnings. Women are unlikely to support any government that continues the restrictive wage policies that so dramatically affect them.
By Marjorie Griffin Cohen