Pandemic may set women back, but the struggle moves forward

Lana Payne National Secretary-Treasurer


This column originally appeared in the Globe and Mail

The pandemic has demolished many conventional wisdoms when it comes to our economy, equality and work – especially essential work, so much of which is done by women.

Where would we be without the labour of women this past year? And yet as critical as that labour has been to the well-being of the country, we are still fighting for respect and fair pay.

Paid sick days have become the tip of the iceberg for much broader calls to improve employment standards and labour rights across the country. The base of the iceberg is the fight for fair wages and decent work for all. It’s why union women struggle to raise the minimum wage, campaign for the universal right to unionize and demand the right to identify and refuse unsafe work. In Canada, a handful of CEOs declare record profits year after year while the floor for minimum workplace standards is vanishing beneath our feet.

Just as we have seen throughout history, the current crisis weighs heavily on women, as well as non-binary and gender diverse people. Even more so on racialized women. Our workplaces are battlegrounds because bosses take more and more money for themselves while women have to fight for fair wages and access to adequate personal protective equipment. After decades of advocacy, we still do not have a meaningful and accessible system of childcare in this country and the gender pay gap continues to undermine women’s experience of work. All of this has been made far worse through this pandemic.

So when Doug Ford, the Premier of Ontario, appears to be at his wit’s end because people keep asking about paid sick days, let me share an ounce of truth: we’re not about to stop demanding or organizing.

Frankly, too many politicians have let ideology get in the way of a proper pandemic response. – one that puts people and workers first.

They have allowed the entire weight of a pandemic to fall onto the shoulders of women. Women are working harder than ever on the front line, and yet more than 20% of women are underemployed, evidence of the systemic barriers in our job market. More women than men have lost their jobs amid the crisis, dropping our labour market participation by a full percentage point.

We’re going backwards.

Union women have been fighting for workplace justice for decades. The very roots of International Women’s Day we celebrate on March 8 stem from the fight for fair pay, safe work and the right to a union for all.

More than 100 years after the first celebration of women’s achievements and potential, workplace struggles are just as important. Any personal support worker knows just how tragic and challenging this past year has been.

So while certain politicians will be remembered for having stood in the way of workers, women and everyone who hold up our communities in good and bad times, there are still a few things they don’t know.

One day we will have mandatory paid sick days in every province in Canada and employers will pay for them.

One day, employers will no longer be able to outsource their responsibilities to temporary agencies, scraping every dollar of profit they can from working class communities, leaving workers vulnerable to weakened workplace rights and permanently low wages.

One day in this country, we will usher in a universal pharmacare program that will drastically lower drug costs for average Canadians and secure the next building block of Canada’s public health care system.

Women, women’s democratic movements and workers’ organizations see the connections between decent work, affordable housing, racial justice, access to education, public health care and childcare, and the all-important safety net that lifts everyone up.

Women have been fighting for these things for a long time and we are not about to give up now.

While politicians come and go, the sisterhood continues uninterrupted – and so do our demands for gender justice.

And in these times of crisis, politicians can listen and act – or they can step aside.

Lana Payne is Unifor’s National Secretary-Treasurer.