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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 16, Number 6, May/June 2004

Healthcare privatization eliminates pay-equity gains

B.C. now has the lowest hospital support wages in Canada. Privatization has eliminated 30 years of pay-equity gains and has put B.C. at the bottom of the list nationally when it comes to wages and benefits for women working in health support occupations.

That is the central finding of a study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. It documents the dramatic reversal of pay equity resulting from the provincial government’s push to contract-out hospital support services (cleaners, care aids, laundry service, food service, and clerical workers). "Bill 29 has turned the clock back 30 years on fair wages for women in health support occupations," says co-author Marjorie Griffin Cohen, a CCPA research associate and chair of SFU’s Women’s Studies Department.

In the absence of pay-equity legislation, which exists in most other provinces, B.C. healthcare unions spent decades negotiating an end to wage discrimination for women in hospital support services. "Now," says Griffin Cohen, "wages have been cut almost in half, and these workers have no pension, long-term disability plan, parental leave, or guaranteed hours of work. They do not know from one week to the next how many hours they will work, when those hours will be scheduled, or what their take-home pay will be."

"The provincial government claimed that wages for hospital support work were too high," says Griffin Cohen. "But they were in line with B.C.’s higher costs of living, and were comparable to wages for similar work in the direct public sector. It’s not like wages were simply trimmed back. At $9.25 to $11 an hour, the new rates are well below even the lowest negotiated wage in the private hospitality sector. And they are the lowest in Canada for hospital support work—26% below the national average."

Marcy Cohen, co-author of the study and a researcher with the Hospital Employees’ Union, says "the new wages set the purchasing power of health support workers back to what they were in 1968."

"Undermining the economic security of a mainly female and visible-minority workforce is not something governments are likely to brag about. Yet that’s exactly what the B.C. government’s actions have achieved," says Cohen. More than 50% of HEU members have one or more dependent children, 25% support a dependent adult, and many live with partners who do not have access to extended health or pension benefits.

Bill 29’s elimination of job security and no contracting-out provisions in existing collective agreements is unprecedented in the history of Canadian labour law. This is also true of the partnership agreements between the IWA and the private multinational corporations bidding on contracted-out services. Griffin Cohen notes, "This sets a dangerous precedent that is already being replicated by provincial governments in Ontario and Quebec."

"A Return to Wage Discrimination: Pay Equity Losses Through the Privatization of Health Care" is available at www.policyalternatives.ca. A summary of the study is also available online in English and in French.

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