BC CEDAW Group Reply to Gordon Campbell's Reply

Date: 
Thursday, May 22, 2003

#225, 3495 Cambie Street, Vancouver, B.C., V5Z 4R3
Aboriginal Women's Action Network, Working Group on Poverty, West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, Justice for Girls, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter, Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (B.C. and Yukon Region), End Legislated Poverty, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights, British Columbia Coalition of Women's Centres, Vancouver Women's Health Collective, National Action Committee on the Status of Women - (B.C. Society), Women's Working Group of the British Columbia Health Coalition

 

May 22, 2003

 

Dear Premier Campbell, 

Thank you for your letter dated April 30 in reply to our letter of April 9, 2003. 

We appreciate your assurance that your government is "committed to providing resources for women's services, and ensuring that new policies and programs do not disadvantage women." However, we are concerned that this commitment is not being put into practice, and that consequently there is a gap between your verbal assurance and the practices of your government. There are a number of points in your letter that we wish to respond to, as well as a number of issues overlooked that we wish to comment on. 

We are pleased that the government "recognizes that child care is a significant component in achieving [the] goal of assisting parents to gain employment and achieve financial success." However, it is not the case that the changes made by the government are building a better child care system for the province, that will provide better assistance to women and their families. 

The government has reduced the income threshold at which parents qualify for subsidy by 185 dollars a month. This means that parents have to be 185 dollars a month poorer to qualify for full subsidy than they did thirteen months ago. In addition, the government will not cut a subsidy cheque for any parent who qualifies for a subsidy of 50 dollars or less a month. The assumption apparently is that this amount is too small to matter. But, in fact, for many families, this 600 dollars a year makes the difference between being able to afford licensed daycare or not. Further, the government has eliminated subsidies for low-income children to attend pre-school unless their mothers are in the paid labour force or enrolled in an approved job training program. This decision has resulted in the loss of quality pre-schools and opportunities for early learning for some of our most 'at risk' children. 

The new Child Care Operating Funding Program (CCOF) has a budget of 48 million dollars, which is 14 million dollars less than the 2001 total budget for the four funding programs it replaces. Not one new child care space is being created through CCOF. Instead, a smaller pot of money is being spread more thinly over more spaces. There is no requirement that funds be spent on wages, or used to keep parent fees more affordable. As a result, we are already seeing wages go down and fees go up. This government re-ordering of the child care scheme does not, in our view, demonstrate a commitment to the needs of women and children for affordable, safe, quality child care, or respect for the work of the (mainly) women who care for children. 

We note your assurance that the government "remains committed to ensuring that government programs address issues relating to women's economic and social equity, and that women are safe in their communities." But you claim, apparently as evidence of this, that a "new Women's Directory, which lists all women's centres throughout the province will make it easier for women in this province to access programs and services that can provide them with valuable support." 

We fail to understand how this can work, in light of the fact that the women's centres that will be listed in the Directory are slated to have their provincial core funding terminated as of April 1, 2004. The existence of a Directory, or of program information on the Internet, will not assist women when there are no women's centres in their communities to actually provide needed counselling and support. 

We applaud the government's recent decision to fund an Aboriginal healing project on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver that "provides substance abuse counsellors to support aboriginal women involved in street activities." However, by itself, this project cannot hope to address the many social and economic disadvantages that Aboriginal women face in British Columbia, or the negative impact on them of the recent cuts and changes to welfare, legal aid, and employment standards protections. 

You also indicate that the government is providing services to women who are battered by violent husbands or partners. We are pleased that the 33 million dollar budget for women's shelters and transition houses has been maintained. But we are concerned that you may believe that keeping this budget in place is enough to ensure safety for battered women. Rather, the fact is that cuts to other services and programs, including welfare, have increased the obstacles faced by battered women who are seeking to remove themselves from violent relationships. Cuts to other services and programs have also increased the pressure on transition house workers, because there are fewer supporting services and advocates available to assist vulnerable women and children who are seeking safe alternatives. 

We also note that the Attorney General, Geoff Plant, recently announced that the former Violence Against Women in Relationships (VAWIR) policy has been changed. The VAWIR policy required Crown Counsel to lay charges in virtually all cases of male violence against women, where there was a reasonable likelihood of conviction. The new policy, in effect, directs Crown Counsel to prosecute in fewer cases. 

Prosecuting in fewer cases may have the effect of reducing the official statistics on violence against women, but it will not change the reality of its prevalence. Rather, this new policy is likely to leave more women and children isolated, and exposed to further violence. Over time, reducing prosecutions is likely to affect the conduct of police, who will be less likely to respond to domestic violence calls, if they know that there is a good chance that the abuser will not be charged. 

The policy may also have a negative effect on women's access to family law legal aid. Since women do not qualify for family law legal aid except in cases where they can show that there has been violence, a policy of reducing the number of cases in which charges are laid may further restrict women's access to family law legal aid. 

Your letter makes no mention of women's access to family law legal aid. Following the 38% cut to the Legal Services Society's budget, no services are provided for family maintenance or custody disputes, except, as just noted, where there is evidence that violence is involved. It is well-known that men are the major users of criminal legal aid, and women are the major users of family law legal aid. When family law legal aid is cut to the bone, as it has been in this province, women are the direct losers.

In addition, direct legal aid services for poverty law matters, that is for landlord/tenant, employment insurance, employment standards, welfare, and disability pension claims or appeals, have been eliminated. This means that there is no civil legal aid available in B.C. for those who are most economically disadvantaged, among whom women are the majority. In short, your government's cuts to legal aid have directly affected women's access to the law to deal with precisely those matters that are crucial to their social and economic equality.

Your letter also fails to provide any response to the matter of cuts to welfare assistance. These cuts affect women and girls in disproportionately negative ways, increasing their economic and social disadvantage. For example, single mothers, who are one of the poorest groups in Canada, and who comprise about 30% of the social assistance caseload in B.C., have had their support allowances cut by up to 351 dollars per month through a combination of 1) a direct cut to the support portion of their welfare (51 dollars); 2) the elimination of the family maintenance exemption, which previously permitted recipients to keep up to 100 dollars a month if they received child support payments from a spouse, and 3) the elimination of the employment earnings exemption, which previously allowed them to keep up to 200 dollars of any earned income. In addition, if single mothers have two children or more, their shelter allowances have been reduced by $45 to $75 per month, depending on family size. Both the Social Planning and Research Council of British Columbia and the Dieticians of Canada, B.C. Region, indicate that current welfare rates are inadequate to meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. 

This means that single mothers and their children in the Province of British Columbia who are welfare recipients do not have enough income to support themselves. This cannot be reconciled with human rights commitments that Canada has made under the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, or the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, by which your government is bound. 

Members of your government have indicated that your policies are designed to help women on welfare attain long-term employment. If that is the case, these policies surely need re-examination. Let us return to the issue of child care. Essential to women being able to enter and remain in the workforce is stable, affordable, high quality child care. Women on welfare are now considered "employable" when their youngest child is three. If these women are to enter the workforce, they need child care for their pre-school age children. But, as we have noted, regulated child care has been put out of the reach of many low and middle income families, and it is not at all clear that women leaving welfare to enter paid employment have access to the child care they need. Uncertain, unreliable and unaffordable child care decreases the chances of women entering, and staying in, employment that can sustain themselves and their children. 

The new welfare eligibility rules also deny welfare to women who are enrolled in post-secondary institutions, despite the fact that the evidence is clear that women's ability to be economically independent, and to obtain work that will permit them to support themselves and their children, is greatly enhanced by higher education. Again, if the government is honestly interested in helping women obtain "long-term employment", this policy is short-sighted and counter-productive. 

In addition, women who enter the workforce now face poorer conditions. With the introduction of the training wage, young single mothers and girls with no previous job experience will be paid 6 dollars per hour for their first 500 hours of work. They cannot support children on a training wage. Nor can they, in fact, adequately support children on the 8 dollar minimum wage, even if they work full-time. The National Council of Welfare in its report The Cost of Poverty notes that "for lone-parent mothers, it is virtually an impossibility to raise children on a low wage job…." 

Further, should women run into trouble at work - for example, an employer who refuses to pay wages for hours worked - workers are now expected to deal with labour standards violations on their own, using a self-help kit, before they can receive any assistance from an Employment Standards Officer. For many immigrant women and girls, who may not have English as a first language, and who are among the most marginalized members of the workforce, this requirement is patently unreasonable. 

It is simply unrealistic to ask, for example, foreign live-in caregivers who are new in this country, who are mostly women of colour and isolated from other workers, who could lose their shelter if their employers decide to lay them off, and whose immigration status is temporary, to deal with their employers' labour standards violations on their own, through the use of a self-help kit. In the past, the intervention of Employment Standards Officers has helped live-in caregivers to correct wage and working condition violations, to obtain reimbursement for unpaid wages, and to remedy other cases of abuse. Now, there are fewer Employment Standards Officers to help, and these women must use a self-help kit before they can have access to an Officer. 

The Employment Standards Act has also been amended to allow employers and employees to negotiate a schedule that maintains a 40-hour work week, but "averaged" over two, three or four weeks. An employee will only be paid overtime if the number of working hours exceeds 160 per month. Women can be pressured by employers to accept irregular work hours, and are required to negotiate on their own for hours that fit their family's schedule and their responsibilities. Low income, non-unionized workers, the majority of whom are women, and many of whom are women of colour and women who are recent immigrants, cannot negotiate individually on a footing of equality with their employers regarding conditions of work. 

The government has also announced that it will cut service jobs in the health care sector. The jobs of hospital cooks, laundry workers, and cleaners that will be affected are, in the main, the jobs of women. The government claims that these hospital workers are being overpaid, and that, if the jobs are privatized, wage rates will be appropriately rationalized. In fact, this means that these women will be returned to discriminatory rates of pay, rates which undervalue the work that they perform because it is "women's work." For thousands of women the clock will be set back, and their jobs will revert to non-unionized ones, with discriminatory wage rates attached. 

It seems clear that the 330 million dollars allocated for training and job placement programs for people receiving social assistance cannot adequately overcome the negative effects for women of other government policies, such as lack of access for the poorest women to post-secondary education, reduced access to quality child care, inadequate labour standards protections, and an acceptance of sex discrimination in market-set wage rates for "women's work." 

Recent changes to the health care system also create a hardship for women, particularly elderly women, many of whom live on low incomes. Among the changes that have implications for women's access to health care are the increase in the premiums that must be paid to the Medical Services Plan (MSP), a reduction in both the number of treatments and kinds of services that are covered under MSP (such as chiropractic, massage therapy, naturopathy, non-surgical podiatry, and physiotherapy), restrictions on eligibility for home care, and the closure of many residential or long term care facilities - the majority of whose residents are elderly women. Moreover, cuts to jobs in the health care sector, reduced home care, and the closure of hospitals all shift more unpaid care-giving work back to individual women, increasing their stress, and constraining their capacity to participate in paid work. 

In short, Mr. Campbell, your letter does not reassure us. Though you claim to be "committed to providing resources for women's services, and ensuring that new policies and programs do not disadvantage women" the practice of your government does not reflect this commitment. Your letter, by failing to provide complete information about the cuts and changes to child care, women's centres, and anti-violence policies and services, and by ignoring other central issues that have been raised by the B.C. CEDAW Group's report, far from persuading us that we are in error, and that women's interests in equality are being advanced by your government, provides further evidence of the need for a review of the effects on women of recent cuts and changes. 

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women expressed its concern about "recent changes in British Columbia which have a disproportionately negative impact on women" and it recommended that "British Columbia…analyse its recent legal and other measures as to their negative impact on women and…amend the measures, where necessary" (para. 36). 

We note that your letter makes no reference to the Concluding Comments of this international human rights Committee although your government was involved in preparing B.C.'s submissions to the Committee and sent an official to the review of Canada's 5th report in New York City in January 2003. We wrote to you specifically about the Committee's Concluding Comments on April 9, and we note that you have not answered our direct requests that: 1) you put the recommended review in place, and 2) halt the implementation of any further cuts to programmes, services, or funding until this review is completed. As you have not said you will not implement these requests, and as there is clearly an unchanged need for them to be implemented, we now repeat them: 

1. Please take steps, with your Cabinet colleagues, to implement the thorough review, recommended by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, to ensure that your government is fulfilling its obligations under international human rights law to the women and girls of British Columbia, including, in particular, Aboriginal women and girls.  

2. Please halt the implementation of any further cuts to programmes, services, or funding until this review of policies and legislation is completed.

 

We also repeat our request to meet with you. We understand that as Premier of the Province you have a very busy schedule. However, meeting with women's organizations to discuss the impact of your government's policies on women should, in our view, be a priority. We are willing to meet with you in the summer months in your constituency, in order to accommodate you. 

Thank you for your attention.

 

Yours sincerely,
Faye Blaney, Aboriginal Women's Action Network
Christina Davidson, Working Group on Poverty
Audrey Johnson, West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund
Annabel Webb and Joanna Czapska, Justice for Girls
Suzanne Jay, Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter
Lee Lakeman, Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres (B.C. and Yukon Region)
Lesley Moore, End Legislated Poverty
Cenen Bagon, Vancouver Committee for Domestic Workers and Caregivers Rights
Michelle Dodds, B.C. Coalition of Women's Centres
Caryn Duncan, Vancouver Women's Health Collective
Bev Meslo, National Action Committee on the Status of Women (B.C. Society)
Terrie Hendrickson, Women's Working Group of the B.C. Health Coalitio