International Women's Day demo, March 2015.

Commentary | Women bear the brunt of labour casualization

Hold McGill accountable this International Women’s Day

It is generally accepted that women, or at least white, cisgender, non-disabled women, earn around 77 cents for every dollar that a white man earns. For women who are racialized, trans, disabled, or otherwise marginalized, the pay gap is even greater. Over the course of a lifetime, this can add up to tens of thousands of dollars of lost income, contributing to women’s economic marginalization and increasing their vulnerability to violence and poverty. On International Women’s Day this year, we must ask: why has this gap remained so persistent over the last several decades, throughout society and here at McGill?

One answer is that the wage gap is caused by the historic devaluing of what is traditionally considered to be “feminine” work, such as caregiving, teaching, nursing, clerical work, et cetera. These jobs are compensated at a lower rate than traditionally “masculine” work that requires similar levels of education, skills, and responsibility. Another answer is that gendered social benefits such as maternity leave and parental days can become liabilities rather than assets for workers, as they are are often only partially compensated for them, if at all. On top of that, workers are often penalized for having taken these leaves when it comes to advancement opportunities.

Quebec was the first Canadian province to try to address the gender pay gap directly through legislation, starting in the 1970s. The Pay Equity Act, passed in 1996, mandates that “predominantly female” job classes in the public sector be paid at the same rate as “predominantly male” job classes of the same level of complexity. Since the act was implemented, many feminine job classes such as nurse or clerical administrator have seen major increases to their salaries, and the overall gender wage gap in Quebec has decreased. In 2006, Quebec also introduced paternity leave in an attempt to redistribute the responsibility of childcare and reduce the highly gendered impact of maternity leaves.

While Quebec is leading the way in addressing the pay gap in its most fundamental form – wage disparity between women and men – women workers are being increasingly exploited on a new front: casual work.

Women make up the majority of the casual and part-time workforce. In 2013, women made up 70 per cent of part-time workers in Canada, and that number is increasing. The casualization of the workforce as a whole through the replacement of full-time, permanent positions with precarious, short-term, and often part-time contracts, is one of the major forces driving this trend.

At McGill, these trends have played out in similar ways. The university falls under the umbrella of Quebec’s Pay Equity Act, and has been adjusting the salary scales of “female” job categories since pay equity adjustments became required in 2001. The University has also implemented paternity leave for many of its employees. However, these improvements have been counteracted by McGill’s skyrocketing use of casual labour.

At McGill, casualization has been a primary means of supposedly “tightening the belt” against austerity-fueled budget cuts. Casual workers are cheap workers, and McGill is making a killing off of hiring people, mostly women, to do the same work for sometimes half the pay and none of the benefits that permanent staff receive. Women comprise over 60 per cent of the casual membership at the Association of McGill University Research Employees (AMURE), the research assistants’ and associates’ union. At the Association of McGill University Support Employees (AMUSE), the union that represents casual non-academic staff at McGill, 60 per cent of the part-time membership (including student work-study employees) and 72 per cent of the replacement workers are women.

The predicament of replacement workers is a prime example of the wage gap in action today. Hired to replace permanent staff who are on leave, these workers receive 80 per cent of the starting salary for the position when their contract is for less than six months. Despite working full time, they receive no health and dental benefits, no sick days, and no top-up for maternity leave like the rest of McGill employees. This 80 per cent is eerily similar to the classic 77 per cent wage disparity figure that is so often quoted as a marker of gender discrimination in the workforce. In the case of replacement workers, this discrimination goes further, compounded by the lost value of the benefits they are denied.

McGill’s administration downplays the seriousness of casualization and casual work by suggesting that it is supplying more jobs to students who need ‘gas money’ or disposable income. This erases the reality that many students need to work to live or to support dependents, and cannot do so on barely more than minimum wage. This narrative also ignores the many casual workers who are not students, who see their jobs as an inroad to secure long-term work at the university, and who often take these jobs in order to support their families. Some casual workers at McGill have been at the university for years, moving precariously from contract to contract, hoping (often in vain) that they will luck out and find a permanent position.

In the meantime, the low pay, low hours, lack of job security, and lack of access to the basic benefits enjoyed by other McGill staff (healthcare, parental leave top-ups, raises, vacation, sick days) leaves casual workers trapped in a cycle of stress and precarity that contributes to marginalization and vulnerability in both their personal and professional lives.

This International Women’s Day, we need to recognize that the fight against the casualization of labour is the fight against the gendered wage gap. Support the creation and maintenance of permanent full-time jobs and workers’ benefits. Support the unions in their ongoing collective bargaining. Support the 15 and Fair campaign on campus. Together, we fight to win.

AMUSE Internal Affairs Officer Heather Holdsworth, AMUSE President Molly Swain, and AMUSE Outreach Coordinator Josh Pavan co-wrote this article on behalf of AMUSE. To contact the authors, email