Workers on Vancouver’s docks will put equality on the agenda
By: Tom Dufresne
Date: Oct 21, 2009
Today, there are 344 women who work on the waterfront in longshoring jobs on the Pacific coast, or almost eight per cent of the total workforce.
This is truly surprising given troubling reports of barriers and harassment faced by women on the waterfront that were uncovered by a recent union-sponsored investigation.
It is all the more surprising considering that there are few if any workplace policies or benefits to help balance domestic and workplace demands that many female workers in other sectors take for granted.
Take maternity leave, for example.
Women working in longshore jobs who bring children into the world do not enjoy any workplace maternity leave benefits beyond those that are provided through the Employment Insurance program. Most women who work on the waterfront can’t afford to take time off even in the weeks immediately after giving birth.
There are no workplace provisions to allow parental leave for longshore workers who become parents through adoption. There are no workplace benefits for child care, care for adult dependents with special needs, or care for elderly parents. All of these duties frequently fall on women to perform, yet the women and men who work on the waterfront must face these responsibilities without the support of any workplace programs or benefits.
Extended health and dental care are unavailable until they have worked 1,200 hours and cleared a number of other hurdles that represent significant barriers to receiving benefits.
Given the total absence of these kinds of benefits and the issues uncovered by the union’s special investigation, is it any wonder that women are not more widely represented in the longshore workforce?
Thankfully, the International Longshore Warehouse Union Canada and the association which represents our employers, the British Columbia Maritime Employers Association, are preparing to negotiate a new collective agreement. Bargaining is set to get under way Dec. 1 and negotiations will tackle the equality of women in our workplaces.
The ILWU Canada will be bringing forward a number of proposals to address the issue of women’s equality in our workplaces because Pacific Coast ports must change to offer workers a better balance between domestic and workplace demands. These ground-breaking proposals cover maternity leave, paternity and adoption leave, child care, elder care and dependent care. Improvements of this nature will deliver benefits to all longshore workers and will pave the way to attracting and retaining more women.
The problems uncovered in the union’s special investigation are long- standing and require a comprehensive and sustainable response that addresses the underlying issues that prevent the recruitment and retention of women in longshore workplaces.
Some have suggested the answer is simply to hire 200 women without regard to seniority. The result of this approach would be to bump out of the active workforce dozens of women who are near the bottom of the seniority list and poison the work environment for the newly hired women. It’s not hard to see how this approach would fail miserably.
The ILWU advocates a 50/50 approach to the next round of longshore worker recruiting that would see an equal number of women and men hired. This affirmative hiring process would begin when the backlog of hires from the previous round of recruitment has cleared.
We hope longshore employers and their association agree that these improvements are needed to recruit and retain more women to our workplaces because inequality comes with a price that is far too high.
Tom Dufresne is president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Canada.