woman in teal shirt sits near wall


The future of work must be decent work

Originally posted on the Broadbent Institute

Last year, we learned that since 1999, four workers died at the Fiera Foods factory in the Greater Toronto Area. One of those workers was Amina Diaby. She was 23, a Black woman, a refugee from Guinea and an aspiring nursing student that had only been on the job for two weeks. Her life was cut short by an increased use of temporary agencies, coupled with weakening labour standards, benefits and employee protections.

Amina’s story speaks to how Black women – Canadian born and immigrant – navigate the spaces where they are employed. It highlights the precariousness of the labour market for immigrant women, undocumented workers and refugees that can often mean life or death. It underscores the racism and gender inequity embedded in Canada’s labour market and how that manifests into cycles of poverty for Black, Indigenous and racialized women and their communities. 

In Canada, the unemployment rate for Black women is 12 per cent, even though Black women have higher employment participation than their non-racialized counterparts. Black women also make 37 per cent less than non-racialized men and 15 per cent less than non-racialized women. These numbers reflect how policies of economic marginalization of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities in Canada, both past and present, drive profit, but continues to encourage low-wage precarious work at the expense of communities that are the most marginalized.  

Framed by the primacy of profits, conversations about the future of work continue to be centred around automation, the opportunities and challenges it will create for broad swaths of Canadian workers, the “gig” economy, as well as the skills workers will need to adapt. All of this is well and good, but what is missing from such conversations is a focus on the nature, quality and culture of work in that future. And what the future of work means for the lives of Black, Indigenous, and racialized people of all identities. Decent work is one way to address this. 

The International Labour Organization defines decent work as “opportunities for work that is productive and delivers a fair income, security in the workplace and social protection for families…freedom for people to express their concerns, organize and participate in the decisions that affect their lives and equality of opportunity and treatment for all women and men.” Decent work includes standards and rights that are enforced, and ultimately how workers should be treated when they enter institutions and navigate the labour market. Decent work means creating the proper environment so workers are guaranteed stable, safe and fair work.

As a Black woman working in the nonprofit sector, it is great to see that a decent work movement is growing. At a sectoral level, decent work can be the baseline for employers to better support Black women and the most marginalized of their employees. In Ontario’s nonprofit sector, the sector is highly feminized – 80 per cent of the sector is women – and racialized. Like other sectors, experiences of racial discrimination, pay gaps, ableism and sexism also apply. 

Through decent work, the sector is trying to address this. Organizational level solutions include developing resources to address all forms of workplace discrimination and bias, advocating for maternity and paternal leave top-ups, ensuring that the sector can offer pensions, and well as addressing racial leadership gaps. 

However, it will take more than sector-led activities for Black women’s economic status and their work and lives to be valued. Another opportunity is to drive decent work through procurement. The federal government spends $18 billion annually on goods and services, which presents considerable opportunities to drive decent work through federal purchasing.

When the government designs its tenders or requests for proposals it has the opportunity to favour bidders that work to create community benefits and have decent work practices.

Firms that are bidding should be able to demonstrate how they are a decent work employer, and where along their supply chains they are purchasing from nonprofit social enterprises or local businesses whose missions support or address the labour market challenges of Black, Indigenous, racialized and immigrant women workers and their communities.

But this also requires considerable levels of accountability and clearly defining indicators to enable success. Cases exist where contracts were awarded based on promises of community benefits only for communities having to fight for what was promised. There will be challenges, but this is one step the federal government can take to drive better labour force outcomes for Black women and those who are farthest from the labour market.

If the future of work is not going to be decent, what is the point of talking about it?  Decent work must be a priority or the same inequities will manifest themselves in different ways as we move towards that future. It’s when the lives of Black women like Amina are overlooked and not considered decent enough that everyone needs to pay attention.

Teshini Harrison stands in a hallway, smiling

Teshini Harrison is a policy analyst with the Ontario Nonprofit Network. She originally wrote this blog post for the Broadbent Institute.

February 25, 2020 at 3:01 pm
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