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The B.C. government’s plans to privatize health care support services will turn back the clock on women’s wages to levels unseen since the late 1960s and put patient care at risk, according to a new study by Simon Fraser University economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen.

Commissioned by the Hospital Employees’ Union and released today, the study says that the B.C. government’s year-old contract-breaking legislation sets the stage for hospital support workers’ wages to “drop to the lowest pay scale in the country for every job category - and not by a few percentage points but by substantial amounts.”

More than 85 per cent of HEU members - those workers targeted by the legislation - are women.

“This process is a direct attack on the pay equity initiatives won earlier, and it is one where government is complicit in the downward spiral of women’s working conditions,” says Cohen.

Although full-scale contracting out is in its preliminary stages, Cohen points out that a precedent-setting contract awarded to the British multinational Compass for cleaning non-patient areas at Vancouver General Hospital contains “severe” wage cuts that “are clearly unorthodox, if not exploitative, particularly for workers in a province with such high costs of living.” And Cohen challenges government claims that B.C. health care support workers are excessively paid by showing that their higher rates of pay are in line with B.C.’s higher general labour costs and other cost of living indicators.

“While a hospital cleaner in this province is paid almost nine per cent more than a hospital cleaner in Ontario, her housing costs are more than 12 per cent higher,” says Cohen. “And while a dietary aide in B.C. is paid 29 per cent more than her counterpart in Alberta, B.C. housing costs are 34 per cent higher.”

Fair wages for women health care workers are important for other reasons as well. Cohen found that two-thirds of HEU workers support dependent children and/or adults and only 20 per cent have a partner who works full-time and has extended health benefits.

HEU workers also represent a larger proportion of immigrant women, visible minority women and older women than is present in B.C.’s working population.

“These workers are recognized as being especially disadvantaged in the workforce and most likely to benefit from pay equity initiatives,” says Cohen. “These membership characteristics indicate that the B.C. government’s decision to nullify the HEU contract will leave women workers and their families in precarious economic circumstances.”

The impact of privatization is not limited to workers, says Cohen, but also puts patient care and taxpayers at risk.

Using the hospital housekeeping wage of $9.50 an hour paid by Compass at VGH as an illustration, Cohen argues that these extremely low wages are “almost guaranteed to ensure that few employees remain on the job very long.”

“The turnover rates in hospitals and long-term care facilities, coupled with fewer numbers of people employed and the unstable conditions of their work will certainly have an impact on the quality of the work performed,” she says. “In many other jurisdictions the experience of privatizing health care support services has resulted in much lower standards of cleanliness.

“And although the stated reason for cutting wages is to save money,” says Cohen, “it is unlikely that actual savings will be realized in each health authority.”

“This is because any ’savings’ arising from reduced wages will go to the private companies - primarily large multinational corporations - and to lawyers, accountants and managers responsible for overseeing these contracts.” HEU assistant secretary-business manager Zorica Bosancic says that Cohen’s report is a timely contribution to the debate on health privatization.

“On the eve of International Women’s Day - March 8 - it’s important to consider the impact of this government’s privatization agenda on women and their work,” says Bosancic. “Our members have struggled for decades to achieve fair and decent wages that recognize the critical role they play in making health care a safe place for patients and residents.”

“We urgently need to find alternatives to laying off thousands of skilled, experienced workers and destroying three decades of progress towards fair wages for women.”

Contact: Patty Gibson, communications officer, 604-328-7393 (cell)