Privatization of Public Services

By Stinson, Jane | Women & Environments International Magazine, Fall/Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Privatization of Public Services


Stinson, Jane, Women & Environments International Magazine


What Does it Mean for Women?

Women, in Canada and around the globe, have a lot to lose with the privatization of public services. Good jobs for women in the public sector are being replaced with insecure employment at about half the pay, a heavier workload, and fewer union rights. Public services such as child-care, health care, and education, designed to support women's participation in the labour market and society, are being dismantled and eroded by market principles. Privatization is also increasing women's household responsibilities by intensifying, if not increasing, the amount of time spent on domestic labour and household relations. The privatization of health and social services is particularly problematic for women since the nature of work in these sectors is most similar to the unpaid, domestic reproductive labour done by women in the home.

Despite the drawbacks for women, many governments around the world are embracing the privatization of public institutions such as hospitals, schools, and recreation centres, and of infrastructure such as roads and water delivery systems. This global trend is buoyed by claims that greater efficiency can be achieved through the market. Privatization is being pushed by powerful, global corporations keen to increase their market share and their profits. Supranational organizations like the World Trade Organization are promoting, entrenching, and enforcing privatization and deregulation of the public sector, especially through the ongoing negotiations of the GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services).

We hear a lot about the power of global capital but less about the power of global solidarity by women and men who oppose privatization and who favour greater publie ownership and control of our economy and common wealth. But people's movements against privatization are strong and gaining force as new bonds are formed for sharing information and developing strategies to fight it. As global corporations have grown stronger, fortunately so too have networks of global solidarity.

My union, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) - Canada's largest, with over 500,000 members, of whom more than half are women - is frequently in touch with those engaged in anti-privatization struggles in other countries. For example, a visiting Colombian member of parliament inspired delegates to our national anti-privatization conference in March 2003 with a riveting account of how the municipal workers of Call, Colombia, stopped the privatization of municipal services by occupying their local government offices. They were successful because for years they had offered their services freely to the poor in the barrios to compensate for the lack of government assistance. This laid the foundation for the community support needed for success in their occupation.

In the area of health care, CUPE follows closely what is happening with privately financed hospitals in the UK. It uses horror stories from the UK experience to argue against embracing this model of privately financing, owning, and operating hospitals and other public institutions in Canada. CUPE is also monitoring the struggle against privatizing our municipal water systems, as part of a global struggle by unions, citizen groups, environmental activists, women's groups, and social justice organizations.

From Keynesian welfare state to neo-liberal state

Privatization is a general term that covers many specific practices whereby public services are reduced and the private sector takes on a much larger role in their financing and delivery. Private financing of public services may take the form of individuals paying more for public services, for example through user fees, rather than having the costs covered by taxes. It also includes encouraging corporations to pay for developing or renewing the infrastructures of public institutions such as hospitals and schools. Governments like this form of public-private partnership because it reduces public debt even though it costs more in the long term and often means loss of public ownership and control.

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