It's the biggest source of jobs in the country, employing more than one million people in Ontario alone. But unequal wages and unfair distribution of hours in the retail sector are keeping women workers down, a new report shows.
Although almost 60 per cent of the province's overall retail workforce is female, men still outnumber women in the highest-paid retail job: management. Men are also paid more than women in every single category of retail work, and are more likely than women to enjoy a full-time role, the study finds.
"I've studied retail work for six years, but the seriousness of the pay inequities in Ontario still surprised and angered me," said Kendra Coulter of Brock University, who co-wrote the report funded by the Ontario Pay Equity Commission.
"This is not about a few bad apples. There is a widespread devaluing of women workers across the sector."
Deb Henry, a Metro grocery store employee and the women's advocate for Unifor Local 414, says some of the report's findings are consistent with her experience.
The majority of her female coworkers work as cashiers or at the deli, whereas many of the more lucrative jobs — in the meat department, for example — have gone to men, she said.
Henry says working conditions have improved at Metro for its 4,000 employees in the GTA since they penned a new collective agreement last year, which gave them more predictable hours.
Yet many women are still stuck in part-time jobs and have chores waiting for them at home, she said.
"We go to work, then maybe go to a second job and then go home and do the laundry, clean the house and make dinner. We're doing it, but it's not good," she said. "We don't work to live anymore; we're living to work."
Mark Bernhardt, a Metro spokesperson, said the company is committed to providing all employees with equal opportunities. "Employees of either gender are compensated the same for the job performed as per the collective agreement," he said.
In the retail sector, female workers are more likely to be concentrated in minimum wage jobs, according to the report, which draws on Statistics Canada data. Although the wage gap experienced by women in the retail sector is somewhat lower than the overall pay disparity in Ontario, 65 per cent of retail workers making $12 or less are women.
But female workers in retail are additionally penalized by the unfair distribution of hours and full-time work, according to the study, entitled "The Gender Wage Gap in Ontario's Retail Sector: Devaluing Women's Work and Women Workers." Around 65 per cent of male retail workers are in full-time jobs, compared to 57 per of women.
"Women in retail face a triple-disadvantage. They are paid low wages overall, and less than their male co-workers for the same work across occupational categories. Plus, women are assigned fewer hours," Coulter said.
In addition to its Statistics Canada data, the study surveyed 400 front-line retail workers, with the GTA and Niagara regions most heavily represented. The survey found that 43 per cent of workers felt the distribution of hours at their workplaces was uneven, making it difficult to have a steady income and schedule.
The Star has previously reported on the impact of erratic scheduling and precarious employment on workers' lives. The Ontario government is currently reviewing its employment and labour laws, which workers' rights advocates say are outdated and often ineffective.
Under Ontario law, employers do not need to provide work schedules with any advance notice and shifts can be cancelled or shortened at the last minute. There are no minimum hour guarantees, and part time and temp workers do not need to be paid the same as full-time employees even when they are doing the same job.
"What is not included in the (Employment Standards Act) affects retail workers in significant ways, particularly part-time workers, a majority of whom are women," the report says. "This lack of protection has an impact on take-home pay and on quality of life.
In addition to weak laws, the report points to low unionization rates in the retail sector as a factor in pay inequity and poor working conditions. Around 13 per cent of retail jobs are unionized, compared to the Canadian average of 30 per cent. In 2014 in Ontario, women with a union made almost $8 an hour more than non-unionized women, and enjoyed greater pay parity to men.
"As the place of work for over a million Ontarians, what happens to people in the retail sector matters," the report concludes.
"The undervaluing of retail workers as a whole has a material impact on the lives of real people, families, and communities across Ontario."