March 8th is International Women’s Day, an annual celebration of the struggles and achievements of women across the globe. This day roots from a strong militant, worker oriented and feminist tradition. It is therefore a day for us to recollect and reflect upon the collective strength of women standing up together and mobilizing for social, economic and political equality. For many of us, from the injured worker movement, it is a day to reflect upon the struggles of women injured workers and the way in which injured women workers have taken out to the streets and fought for fair compensation; not backing down for “half measures”.
Historically, the Ontario Workers’ Compensation system was structured to function in ways that would disadvantage women workers (Storey, 2009). The 1915 Workmen’s Compensation Act statutorily and systematically worked with the assumption of that time, that women’s paid employment did not have much monetary value (2009). Therefore, part of its function was to exclude bulk of injured women workers from basic coverage. Compensation manuals distinguished between married or single, as dependents or survivors of male injured worker; systematically constructing women workers as secondary wage earners or biologically predisposed to earn less, get injured more, and complain more often about an injury than their male counterparts. However, alongside a growing injured worker movement, the 1982 change of name to a gender-neutral Workers’ Compensation Act (later Workplace Safety and Insurance Act) was symbolic to all injured women workers who took leads in the movement.
The challenges continue
In spite of this symbolic change to a formally gender-neutral system, the workers’ compensation system entrenches the inequalities found in the labour market (Storey, 2009). Women still face disparities in income and employment conditions; many in part time, non-union and temporary jobs that aggregate the possibility of women workers getting injured more often. This is directly translated into lower compensation payments and the Board’s use of deeming when a worker gets injured [read Jenny’s story]. Furthermore, injured women workers often encounter Board officials downplaying the severity and legitimacy of the injury, devaluing their paid employment, or even prescribing rehabilitation and reintegration programs with gendered stereotypes. Additionally, reintegration models and retraining programs have not recognised the complexities that arise due to care-giving roles and the consequence of work injury on a women worker. The challenges for injured women workers continue as injured workers now confront a neo-liberal and austerity driven workers compensation system that focuses on cost cutting on the backs of injured workers.
Taking up strong activist roles
Yet, our story is not complete. Today, as women across the globe hold parades, marches and festivals to celebrate the contributions and activism of women, we are reminded of the tireless endeavour of injured women workers. Many of the injured women workers have taken up strong activist roles in advocating for justice for the worker, to be protected in the workplace and for wage equalities. They have taken leads in forming peer support groups (such as Women of Inspiration), bringing in their knowledge in research circles, joining in parallel anti-poverty and anti-austerity movements and not backing down to any decision that is not fair. The resistance keeps growing; grassroots mobilizing and collective strength keeps growing. Our history of struggles and resistance only remind us to take time to appreciate all that women have accomplished and to carry on the fight for just compensation.
(contributed by Rachel Gnanayutham, community legal worker)
Storey, Robert. 2009. “From Invisible to Equality? Women Workers and the Gendering of Workers’ Compensation in Ontario, 1900-2005”. Labour/Le Travail: 75–106.