Are we all equal in front of the provincial budget?

Commentary by Vallie Stearns, Chair of the New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity, and Sylvie Morin, Chair of the Regroupement féministe du Nouveau-Brunswick

Who says women are not interested in the economy? Certainly the Coalition for Pay Equity and the Regroupement féministe will look closely at the next provincial budgets and the strategic program review. Why? Because budget decisions are never gender neutral.

The government says that the program review is not designed solely to reduce expenses. Yet we are told repeatedly that the government needs to find $600 million, presumably by bringing cuts or changes to programs and by increasing revenues. Unless government services can be shown to be delivered more efficiently, then we need to be concerned that cuts to programs and services will be introduced to eliminate the deficit.

Why worry? Studies show that cuts to public programs and services have a greater impact on women than men, whether as beneficiaries, employees or simply as members of a family.

Women more often than men need social assistance; women need financial assistance to pursue postsecondary education programs; women need comprehensive reproductive health services; mothers need affordable child care services; elderly women need income supplements and services at various stages of the aging process.

Public programs and services take on more importance in the context of women's lower participation rate and lower wages in the labour market. This is due to the traditional roles women have occupied within the family and on-going discrimination in the labour force (pay inequity, limited access to better paid non-traditional jobs and to higher level positions, etc.).

As well, women represent the majority of public sector employees. Cutting public sector jobs would likely have a greater impact on women while going against the government’s own objective to create jobs. The government would further increase the gender gap if public program funds were to be reallocated to infrastructure projects. This would result in an increase in male-dominated jobs at the expense of female-dominated jobs.

A study published in 2014 shows that "salaries are higher in the public sector precisely for the groups of people who experience the greatest discrimination in the private sector" (women, aboriginal workers and visible minority workers) while "salaries are lower in the public sector for the groups least likely to experience discrimination on the basis of race and sex1. How do we achieve this? By having pay equity legislation and programs, higher unionization rates and generous maternity leaves - benefits rarely available to women working in the private sector.

Even when they are not direct beneficiaries or are not employed in the public sector, women still bear the brunt of cuts to public services. Indeed, the publicly funded care-giving sector allows women to fully participate in the paid labour force. It frees or at the very least supports women who have traditionally been responsible for the free care of family members, often sacrificing professional opportunities. More and more, these responsibilities are shared between men and women, but women continue to give more of their time and it is more often women who leave their job when the care-giving services are insufficient.

Moreover, the government tried to save money by contracting out care-giving services to the private sector and neglecting to protect the wages and benefits of the workers. This has resulted in pay inequity. The workers in this sector, women for the most part, earn between $13 -14 per hour although a 2014 study indicates they should be paid $20 per hour. The current focus on eliminating the deficit risks relegating the fate of these women further down the list of priorities.

It is not acceptable to balance budgets by maintaining inequity and pay discrimination against women. Human rights are not a luxury. They are at the very core of our democracy.

For these reasons, the Coalition for Pay Equity and the Regroupement féministe recommend that the government publish a white paper containing a gender-based analysis of all proposed options to improve the province's programs and finances.

The government's decisions must take into account the values we all cherish: gender equality, solidarity, social justice and respect for human rights.

[1] Kate McInturff and Paul Tulloch. 2014. Narrowing the Gap: The Difference That Public Sector Wages Make. Canadian Centre fpr Policy Alternatives, p. 5

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