Canada's NDP


June 22nd, 2022

Bonita In The News: Are we ready for Canada’s biggest economic driver to get bigger?

We must recognize and value the essential labour of those who take care of us with crucial policy actions required to bring equity to the care economy.

This article was orginally published on The Hill Times

The “care economy” is Canada’s most significant economic driver and affects the life of nearly every person in Canada.

The physical, psychological, and emotional care of people of all abilities is encompassed by the care economy, including health care, education, elder care, childcare, personal support, and more. Without it, society cannot function. We trust our care safety net in Canada, but it has not received the recognition, support, or respect it deserves for a very long time. This care is at dire risk due to the combination of a lack of strategic planning and sustained investment, and an aging population.

Not many Canadians know the care economy by its name or can articulate the tremendous scope it encompasses. This fact was underscored during the recent federal budget when the care economy and care workers were not even acknowledged. This omission was deliberate, and a result of the long-standing gendered, racialized, and discriminatory lens most governments take towards the importance of the care economy in this country. That needs to change.

When you think of our country’s greatest economic contributors, who do you picture? Is it a nurse or a childcare worker? For many, the answer is neither. Rather, we devalue this labour, which is often considered “women’s work” due to its highly gendered nature.

Women are overrepresented in the care economy. According to Statistics Canada, they comprise 80 per cent of workers in health occupations, hold 68 per cent of teaching roles and professorships, and are more than 95 per cent of childcare workers. All of them are typically paid less than men in the same roles.

Racism is also intertwined within the care economy’s systems. Immigration policies targeting care workers are designed to control access to status or citizenship. At the same time, newcomers, undocumented, and low-income women are especially vulnerable to exploitation and precarious working conditions. Black and Filipina women are overrepresented within the care economy and they are some of the most exploited within care work. Our collective prejudice towards care has resulted in a shared belief that care work is unskilled work and therefore can receive low compensation. This is wrong.

It’s time to start by listening to the voices of those within the care economy. Dr. Naomi Lightman’s recent report, published by the Parkland Institute and the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association, highlights the experiences of immigrant women caregivers during the pandemic, as well as the solutions they bring forward for reforming the long-term care system. For example, one health-care aide explained the colliding financial and mental strain that occurred when working in the care economy during these highly stressful times:

“I was really, really scared [when I tested positive], especially for my baby … No one could come visit me or help … My first son, [who is] nine years old, was trying to make me happy. Because he knows whenever I’m going through stress—you always know, because the issue of the refugee thing is there. Then I also have some money issues, then this coming down with COVID, everything now on me. It was like the whole world was collapsing on me.”

We must recognize and value the essential labour of those who take care of us. Crucial policy actions to bring equity to the care economy include: better and faster credential recognition for training received outside Canada; raising hourly wages of care workers; guaranteeing paid sick days; and supporting access to affordable childcare, mental health supports, dental care, and pharmacare.

We must also increase training opportunities and job desirability to facilitate youth joining the care economy: they are the greatest source of new entrants to the labour market, with 4.9 million young jobseekers expected to enter the workforce by 2028. We cannot address labour shortages within the care economy without them.

At no other time in history have the consequences of our biases and approaches towards care been as visible as they are today. In the past two years, many have made the choice (or been forced) to change the way we work, and this has surfaced the inequities that both paid and unpaid care workers face. We can build a better future by uplifting the care economy, recognizing its significance in government budgets, and properly remunerating the people behind it—those who are dedicating their lives to caring for you, me, and our families.

Bonita Zarillo is the NDP MP for Port Moody–Coquitlam, B.C., and Dr. Naomi Lightman is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Calgary.

The Hill Times