Not much to celebrate this year

Lana
Lana Payne
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Next week women all over the globe will celebrate International Women's Day.

At least, they will try.

But with the planet plunged into an economic crisis and with many governments around the world failing to help advance - even in good times - the equality of women, it feels as if there is little to celebrate.

In Canada, women were not merely left out of the recent federal budget they were delivered another crushing blow by the Harper Conservatives who continue to act on their contempt for the things that contribute to the equality of women and a better Canada.

Next week women all over the globe will celebrate International Women's Day.

At least, they will try.

But with the planet plunged into an economic crisis and with many governments around the world failing to help advance - even in good times - the equality of women, it feels as if there is little to celebrate.

In Canada, women were not merely left out of the recent federal budget they were delivered another crushing blow by the Harper Conservatives who continue to act on their contempt for the things that contribute to the equality of women and a better Canada.

Budget examination

Kathleen Lahey, a Queen's University law professor and tax expert, has compiled a stunning gender analysis of the federal budget. She says virtually every item in the budget disproportionately benefits men - from tax breaks to spending on infrastructure.

And while the infrastructure spending was necessary and quite frankly didn't go far enough, what was missing to give the budget some gender balance was an investment in social infrastructure, such as early learning and child care and home and elder care.

Lahey says this budget was designed to leave women behind; that it reinforces gender inequities. Indeed, it does not just reinforce inequities, it deepens the gender gap.

Canada's record with respect to gender inequities has worsened in the past decade and, in particular, under the current Conservatives. For example, Canada now ranks 83rd out of 159 countries on the gender-equity index compiled by the United Nations. Canada was 14th when the Conservatives took power in 2006. We dropped to 18th in 2007 and now languish in the middle of the pack - largely because of the gap in wages between women and men and because of the small numbers of women in legislatures across the country.

The Conservatives could have begun to address this gap by investing in things like child care and health services and programs. These are areas where women work and are services on which women disproportionately depend.

Investing in social infrastructure and services also makes good economic sense. Informetrica Limited, an economic research firm, found that $1 billion in government spending in health-related services, for example, results in an increase of GDP by about $1.78 billion and creates about 18,000 jobs. But $1 billion in tax cuts results in an increase in GDP of just $720 million and creates just 7,000 jobs.

Valuable spending

According to child-care expert Martha Friendly, for every dollar spent on early childhood education and child care, there is a return to the economy of at least $2. These returns, according to Friendly, come from improved school performance and an increase in mothers' labourforce participation. But in addition to economic stimulus, this kind of investment strengthens Canada's social safety net - which is so important during tough economic times - and makes for a more equal Canada.

Despite all of the ludicrous plans the Harper Conservatives were forced to back down from after their infamous November economic statement, the one thing that survived to make it into the Budget Implementation Act was an attack on pay equity.

It won't take long before this assault at the federal level filters down to provinces and private firms. Many corporations have already been fighting their pay-equity obligations all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Make no mistake. This is an attack on women, the chief beneficiaries of pay equity. It perpetuates wage discrimination and reinforces the undervaluing of women's work.

Known as the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, it will prevent federal government female employees with the support of their unions from filing pay equity complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. Only individual women will be able to file complaints as unions who help will be fined $50,000. No individual woman can afford to see a pay-equity complaint through the system, negating pay equity as a human right.

The Canadian Human Rights Act which applies to employers in the federal sector says that a job performed mostly by women cannot pay less than a job of equal value done mostly by men. What the Conservatives have done with this bill is diminish and further erode pay equity. They have sent a very clear message that wage discrimination is acceptable.

In the United States, women's equality advocates are more hopeful. They feel they have a president on their side. Time will tell whether President Barack Obama uses his considerable power to improve and advance the equality of women in his country.

But for now, American women certainly have a little more to celebrate. They have hope. We have a government stuck in the Dark Ages - continuing a sexist and anti-equality program against half the country's population.

This International Women's Day, there may not be much to celebrate in Canada, but there is certainly plenty to mobilize against - it starts and ends with Stephen Harper.

Lana Payne is president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by e-mail at lanapayne@nl.rogers.com. Her column returns on March 14.

Organizations: Harper Conservatives, Queen's University, United Nations Supreme Court of Canada Canadian Human Rights Commission Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour

Geographic location: Canada, United States

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