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Closing the Door on Women and Minorities

Privatizing public services triggers a chain reaction of setbacks for women, Aboriginal peoples, people of colour, people with disabilities and other equity-seeking groups in Canadian society. Setbacks that rob many Canadians of the dignity and fairness that took decades to attain, undermining their ability to earn a living wage and contribute fully to the economy. Setbacks that compound unpaid workloads as women scramble to shore up a network of services that for decades cared for and supported the elderly, the sick, children, people with disabilities a network that privatization is systematically dismantling. These are setbacks that threaten to close the door on many of the gains women and minorities have won over the years.

The public sector has long been a source of good jobs for women and minorities jobs that paid a family-supporting wage and provided some measure of security. This decade has marked the reversal of that trend. Overall in the public sector, women workers represent two-thirds of unionized public sector workers, with the percentage increasing dramatically in sectors that are among the prime targets of privatization: health care, education and long-term care.

Between 1992 and 1996, public sector employment shrank by 5 per cent, or 121,000 jobs. And in the two decades between 1976 and 1996, the percentage of employed women who worked in the public sector fell from 21 per cent of all jobs held by women to just 18 per cent, with 25,000 female public sector workers losing their jobs between 1992 and 1996.

The security of decent public sector jobs is rapidly being replaced by the instability of temporary, part-time or self-employment. Since the 1970s women have accounted for about 70 per cent of part-time workers and part-time work is becoming increasingly involuntary. While part-time work is often promoted as a flexible option for women, one-third of Canadian women report that they are working part-time not by choice, but because they cant find a full-time job. At a time when a growing number of women are the main bread winners in their households, the social costs of cutbacks and privatization are immeasurable: poverty deepens, inequality grows and insecurity threatens hundreds of thousands of Canadians.

Selling off public services disproportionately affects those already facing challenges in the job market, particularly those who have managed to get a foot in the door only to now be the first to lose their jobs. This includes Aboriginal workers, workers of colour and workers with disabilities people who had found their place in a sector where important changes were underway: employment equity, pay equity and anti-discrimination.

With unemployment rates consistently above the national average, Aboriginal peoples, people of colour and people with disabilities are doubly disadvantaged when seeking new work. And while some may find a private sector job, it may not be enough to make ends meet. More than 40 per cent of women working in the private sector earn less than $10 an hour, compared to a mere 7 per cent in the public sector. And many private sector jobs fail to provide adequate, family-supporting benefits.

Privatizing a public service wreaks havoc in the workplace beyond the inevitable cuts to wages and benefits. As jobs get cut, workloads increase for those who keep their jobs, stress and tension levels rise, overtime demands skyrocket, and workplace harassment and violence become more frequent. Workers taking on additional burdens often pay a physical price as work-related injuries rise. And systemic racism, still an all-too present feature in Canadian society, is exacerbated when workers are forced to compete for the few jobs that remain. These are social costs that dont often appear on a balance sheet or consultants report. Theyre costs borne more often than not by women and minorities costs rarely considered when a service is contracted out or privatized. But they are an inevitable part of the price tag.

The losses extend far beyond the paid workforce. Canadas public services were built and funded based on the recognition that society as a whole not individuals ought to provide them. This meant work traditionally seen as womens work performed in the isolation of the home became labour that was both valued and paid. Caring became a social responsibility. And the wide-reaching benefits of assuming this responsibility were understood. This socialization of previously unacknowledged work opened many doors for women, enabling many for the first time to enter the paid workforce. It also served as a stepping stone to lessening inequality by broadening access to health care and other services integral to Canadian society.

The shrinking of our support network is having a devastating impact on families and communities. As governments retreat from their commitment to quality, accessible public services, the jobs left unfilled and undone are shunted back to the home and onto womens to do list. Across the country communities are struggling to cope with the results of losing public services to the private sector, including the reduction or elimination of services, new user fees that are barriers to access and a marked decline in quality of services.

Patients discharged quicker and sicker, elderly parents unable to find or afford a nursing home, patients facing months of hospital food prepared in another province in these and numerous other instances all eyes turn to women to pick up where newly-privatized services leave off. In the case of privatized hospital food services, centralized preparation of meals means a system where food including items such as toast is prepared, frozen, flown to its destination, re-heated and served. Food preparation workers in Saint John, N.B. report that the food was of such poor quality when served either frozen solid or charred to a crisp that many relatives resorted to bringing patients meals from home.

This shifting of state and societal responsibility back onto individual women is forcing some into part-time jobs or to leave their jobs altogether. Women participating in one recent study reported missing nearly a full week of work in a year to care for elderly relatives. One in five of these women had considered quitting work altogether due to their responsibilities. Another study found one in three caregivers forced to either quit or modify their jobs.

Poll after poll shows that those most at risk when services are privatized – women and others traditionally marginalized in the workplace – have the strongest negative reactions to privatization. These are the people with first-hand knowledge of the difference well-funded public services make. And concern is broadening. A recent Vector poll found that three-quarters of Canadians surveyed expressed concern that in the wake of the privatization of a public service, good jobs would be lost and poor people, women and people of colour would have less access to services.

Privatizing public services poses many immediate and dire threats. An entire generation of young workers will never have access to secure, well-paid jobs. Another generation of women faces the dual demands of aging parents and young children. And those just gaining a foothold in Canadian society will likely see the largest setbacks of all.