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CUPE members and supporters join a demonstration near Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Lisa MacLeod’s office in Ottawa on Nov. 4, 2022.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

Leah Sarson is an assistant professor in the department of political science at Dalhousie University.

Over the past several days, there has been an onslaught of criticism against the Ontario government’s Bill 28, the Keeping Students in Class Act, which forces CUPE education support workers to accept an abysmal employment contract, imposes steep fines for workers who participate in the current walkout, and invokes the notwithstanding clause to prevent further labour action.

While these critiques justifiably condemn the province for running roughshod over the constitutionally guaranteed right to association and other labour rights, they have generally neglected to highlight a critical element of the dispute – that most of the workers caught up in the Ford government’s machinations are women.

Women comprise more than 70 per cent of the 55,000 Canadian Union of Public Employees education support staff fighting for fair wages, including education assistants, library workers, administrative staff, custodians, early childhood educators and school safety staff.

The most recent proposal tabled by the government offered 2.5-per-cent pay increases to workers making less than $43,000 and 1.5-per-cent raises for others. According to CUPE, education workers have seen their wages decline in real terms by nearly 11 per cent in the past decade, with the average education worker earning only $39,000. This is about $3,000 short of what is considered a living wage in expensive cities like Toronto.

Workers report taking on additional employment during evenings and weekends on top of their full-time positions simply to make ends meet. Many are living paycheque to paycheque. Workers also contend that staff shortages because of cuts have increased the stress and requirements of their positions and that the demands of the sector often include unpaid work such as parent-teacher interviews.

The Ford government’s treatment of this women-dominated work force is far from an anomaly. In 2019, the province passed Bill 124, which caps wage increases for public-sector workers to 1-per-cent annually for three years. The public sector is dominated by women, and some areas, such as nursing, are about 90-per-cent women. Not only does this legislation unjustly prevent necessary wage increases, it exempts male-dominated public-sector professions such as firefighters and police.

In September, organizations affected by Bill 124 took the province to court, with the Ontario Nurses Association arguing that the legislation discriminates against women and violates gender and sex-equity provisions of the Charter. Additionally, this spring, the government fast-tracked the passage of Bill 106, which further undermines workers’ rights and permits the province to ignore its pay-equity obligations.

The Ontario government has also fought equal pay for equal work provisions for groups like midwives, who recently won a Court of Appeal case to correct a more than 45-per-cent wage gap with similar workers.

Bill 28 continues this trend of gender inequity. The law firm Miller Thomson points out that the legislation includes a note that it will apply despite the provincial human-rights code, essentially abrogating Ontario’s anti-discrimination rules. The firm speculates that the government may be attempting to head off the kind of legal action against gender-based discrimination that was successfully used by Ontario midwives.

The Ford government is well aware that Bill 28 not only unfairly suppresses wages, but also unfairly targets women and increases the gender wage gap.

The irony, of course, is that the provincial government relied on women to keep the province afloat during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ontario closed schools to in-person learning for more days than any other province, leaving women with the impossible burden of balancing child care, home-schooling and their careers.

The gender gap in paid work hours grew significantly, as did the domestic and child-care burdens borne by women. Never mind that the vast majority of workers most dramatically affected by the pandemic were women, including hospital, hospitality, long-term care and grocery-store workers.

After four years in office, it should be clear that the Ford government simply does not care about the well-being of the women of Ontario. This government has a long record of fighting and even rolling back women’s rights and gender-equity gains.

In our efforts to push back, it is crucial that those challenging this government acknowledge that fighting Bill 28 is as much an issue of gender as it is about labour rights.

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