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COMMENTARY: Rebuilding the economy from the bottom up

Covid-19 is throwing light on long-standing gender inequities in our society through its disproportionate impact on women and gender minorities. As we gradually return to business as usual, this is an opportunity to rethink and redesign economic policies and systems to promote greater gender equality.

As of January 2021, New Brunswick's labour force is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. But those numbers were not favourable to women to begin with. They continue to be the majority of workers who earn minimum wage, they make up the majority of multiple job holders and are more than twice likely to work part-time. New Brunswick women averaged 33.1 hours of work per week compared to 39.1 hours by men.

Women are New Brunswick’s greatest untapped resource

With the province looking to fill more than 120,000 vacancies over the next decade, New Brunswick should maximize the participation of half of its population—women. As it stands, New Brunswick women’s participation rate is the second lowest in the country at 57.7%, compared to 60.3% for Canada as a whole and 64.7% for NB men.

According to calculations made in 2017, the province could have increased its GDP by 3 to 4 per cent between 2016 and 2026 by increasing women’s participation in the labour market. The upcoming provincial budget for 2021-2022 is our first post-pandemic opportunity to address this issue. Will the government step up to the plate?

Gender equality in the workplace

Despite higher levels of education (60.6 per cent of NB women have a post-secondary degree compared to 54.4 per cent of men), women earn lower hourly wages than men ($23.87 versus $25.05) because they continue to be over-represented in female-dominated sectors that are often undervalued and underpaid.

One way to encourage women to enter and remain in the workforce is to ensure they are fairly compensated for the value of their work. Pay equity legislation would require that female-dominated jobs be paid the same as male-dominated jobs of comparable value. It is a human right. New Brunswick already boasts legislation for the public sector. A law for the private sector would ensure this right for the more than 65% of women in the labor market employed in the private sector.

Pay equity will also be beneficial to businesses. As a valuable human resource management tool, it would provide competitive wages for female-dominated jobs and support companies' recruitment and retention strategies.

The value of care

Social infrastructures matter to women. They do more than their fair value of care work: they do more for free at home, and for low wages in the labour market

The division of care labour is all the more evident in the community caregiving sector, where women account for over 90% of the workforce and racialized or immigrant women are disproportionately represented.

This sector is facing significant retention and recruitment problems as a result of the failure to invest in fair wages and better working conditions, such as paid sick days and minimum guaranteed hours. For its part, the Coalition is conducting pay equity evaluations to determine fair wages for six services. Results for home care, transition houses and community are between $22 and $25 per hour, whereas current wages range from $15.30 to $16.80. Results for the other three services are forthcoming.

The Coalition is calling on the government to implement a five-year plan to achieve pay equity in the entire sector. It can start by investing in wage increases in the next budget. We need a sector with a stable and qualified workforce to support New Brunswick families and women's participation in the labour market.

Child care key to women's recovery

Another barrier to women’s employment is the lack of accessible and affordable child care. A universal child care system would permit women to enter the workforce, as well as create jobs and bolster economic growth.

For many families, currently child care services are not affordable. For example, according to a 2019 survey on child care fees conducted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the cost for families in Moncton for infants is $856 on average, $716 for toddlers and $722 for preschoolers.

The time has come to develop a universally accessible, affordable, inclusive and flexible public child care system that meets the diverse needs of parents and children. It is an investment that pays off. Researchers estimate that the low cost of childcare services increased Quebec's GDP by $5.1 billion in 2008 due to the increased participation of women in the labour market.

The provincial government should invest in the wages of early childhood educators. That is the key to building a cohesive, quality child care system as higher wages will attract skilled workers and reduce staff turnover, just as they do in the community caregiving sector.

Rebuilding the economy from the bottom up

Healthy and sustainable communities are built on robust social infrastructures and on a care economy. New Brunswick families depend on them to thrive and to participate in the provincial economy and the labour market.

The 2021-2022 budget can either exacerbate inequalities or attenuate them by addressing barriers that prevent women from fully participating to the labour force through key investments in social infrastructures like caregiving and child care, as well as public policies like pay equity and paid sick leave.

It’s time to make the province work for all its citizens.

Johanne Perron
Executive Director, NB Coalition for Pay Equity