This profile is intended to provide CUPE members with basic information about the sector they work in from a national perspective. Find all our sector profiles and more information online at cupe.ca
CUPE has a strong presence in the social services sector representing 54,700 members in over 500 bargaining units in communities across the country. Eighty-five per cent of workers in the sector are women. CUPE members in the social services sector provide a range of services and supports to people who are often vulnerable, marginalized, and impoverished. CUPE social services workers help women and children flee domestic violence, protect children from harm and neglect, work with adults with development disabilities, provide employment counselling, administer social assistance, provide services and supports to people living with HIV and AIDS, and many more vital public services too numerous to mention. CUPE social service workers are employed by transfer payment agencies, municipal governments that provide social services, and non-profit community agencies.
Governments are failing Canadians by refusing to invest in the social services that we need and depend on. Underfunding has caused a workforce crisis where employers can’t hire and retain workers due to low wages, poor or non-existent benefit and pension plans, increased incidents of workplace violence, and unmanageable workloads. Workers are underpaid, overworked, short-staffed, stressed, and burned out and that harms the quality of care provided.
Funding through the federal Canada Social Transfer (CST) supports social services, social assistance, early childhood development and early learning and childcare, and post-secondary education. CUPE is calling on the federal government to implement immediate measures to alleviate inflationary pressures on the CST.
Transfer payment agencies receive the bulk of their funding from provincial governments for operating and capital costs—examples include the Children’s Aid Societies and Developmental Services Agencies in Ontario. Municipal governments that provide social services often enter into cost-sharing arrangements with provincial governments.
Non-profit community agencies are institutionally separate from government and are governed by volunteer boards of directors. They rely on several funding streams from all three levels of government, corporate and private donations, the United Way, and fundraising activities. The reliance on multiple sources of funding means that revenues from year to year are unpredictable with no guarantee of securing stable and reliable sources of funding.
Over time in Canada, all levels of government have reduced spending on social services. Decades of government funding cuts, funders’ unwillingness to provide stable, core funding, and an over-reliance on short-term, project funding has put workers, communities, and the entire sector under strain. Declining government funding has made the sector increasingly vulnerable to contracting out and other forms of privatization. It has also led to systemic staff recruitment and retention challenges, and an increase in precarious forms of employment.
Privatization is a symptom of underfunding. Whole-sale privatization tends not to occur in social services; rather, the trend has been privatization by stealth. Under the guise of restructuring and transformation, governments have increasingly opened the door to alternative models of service delivery. This restructuring or transformation takes on several different forms in social services.
Social Impact Bonds (SIBs)
CUPE has been calling on the federal and provincial governments to stop promoting and financially supporting Social Impact Bonds (SIBs), a form of privatization that allows the private sector to profit from the delivery of social services to communities and equity seeking groups that are often vulnerable and marginalized.
Independent research has demonstrated the many failures of Social Impact Bonds. Investors are interested in earning profits, not addressing the root causes of systemic social issues. Like other forms of privatization, SIBs come with high consultant fees and few cost savings. Public money should only be spent on the public and non-profit delivery of social services.
Direct funding, also known as individualized funding, is a form of privatization where governments give financial resources directly to parents, families, or individuals to purchase social services and supports.
Direct funding destabilizes the community-based network of supports and services. It erodes wages and working conditions, escalates staff recruitment and retention challenges, contributes to the increase in precarious employment, and fragments services rather than building a cohesive network of services and supports.
Competitive bidding opens the door to privatization by imposing a market model on the social services sector. Non-profit community agencies are forced to compete with each other, and with private community agencies, for scarce funding resources, staff, and volunteers. As contracts come up for renewal, agencies regularly lose contracts and workers may be laid off. In Alberta, the use of competitive bidding has expanded under the current conservative government.
Canada Disability Benefit (CDB)
People with disabilities are about twice as likely to live in poverty compared to people without a disability. Women with disabilities and racialized people with disabilities are amongst the poorest of the poor. The incomes of people with disabilities living in poverty is largely comprised of provincial social assistance payments.
CUPE has been urging the federal government to accelerate the development and implementation of the Canada Disability Benefit (CDB). The CDB was announced in the 2021 federal budget.
The provision of quality social services can only be provided through public, not-for-profit, mandated services via an adequately funded community agency system, where workers are compensated fairly and provided training and skills enhancement opportunities. Only a properly funded public system, where everyone has the right to access the services they need, can adequately address long wait lists for programs and services, service cuts, limited capacity to respond to changing needs, deteriorating infrastructure, staff recruitment and retention challenges, and low and disparate wages.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the many cracks in the provision of social services. Employers and governments have provided little to no recognition for the vital public services provided by social services workers throughout the pandemic. Workers have risked exposing themselves to the virus during the pandemic thereby putting their health at risk along with the health of their loved ones and the people they support.
CUPE’s social services sector has a mix of local, coordinated, and central bargaining. Local bargaining is the sole form in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Manitoba, and Alberta, while some locals in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, and Saskatchewan have forms of coordinated bargaining. Central bargaining exists in British Columbia, Quebec, and Ontario.
Legislative attacks on collective bargaining and interest arbitration have created challenges in the sector. Attacks on workers’ rights, such as legislated wage freezes, back-to-work legislation, forced arbitration, and expansive definitions of essential services have created a difficult collective bargaining environment.
The post-pandemic bargaining climate is predicted to be even more challenging. It’s anticipated that many governments could introduce a new round of austerity agendas resulting in budget cuts, reduced program spending, legislated wage freezes and rollbacks, layoffs, and an increased appetite for privatization initiatives. This will translate into employer demands for concessions at the bargaining table.
Despite these and other challenges, CUPE locals in the social services sector have made noticeable bargaining gains the past two years with most annual wage increases in the 1 to 2 per cent range.
Most CUPE social services workers are enrolled in a pension plan. More than three-quarters of social services locals have a pension plan and over half of those are defined benefit plans. There are several pension plan arrangements in the sector including municipal pension plans, the Healthcare of Ontario Pension Plan (HOOP), and the Multi-Sector Pension Plan (MSPP).
CUPE has been extremely successful bargaining the MSPP in many smaller social services workplaces. For example, 86 per cent of developmental services bargaining units in Ontario participate in the MSPP as a result of coordinated bargaining in the sector.
The Quebec Federation of Labour (Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec (FTQ)) and its public sector affiliates including CUPE/SCFP toured several locations in the province as part of the Toujours Debout (Still Standing) campaign. The campaign pays tribute to social services, health care, and education workers who have continued to provide vital public services throughout the pandemic.
CUPE Manitoba joined forces with the Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union (MGEU) and the United Food and Commercial Workers’ Union (UFCW) to campaign for community living workers. The campaign was a huge success with the allocation of wage supports to workers in the provincial budget.
At the national level, CUPE is calling for a Care Economic Commission to develop a national care strategy. We are also calling for the implementation of a $25 an hour minimum wage for all federally funded care work. CUPE is pressing for improved working conditions such as more full-time job opportunities in the sector, paid sick leave, access to benefit and pension plans, more training opportunities, improved violence prevention in care settings, and quality mental health services for care workers.