From Invisibility to Equality? Women Workers and the Gendering of Workers' Compensation in Ontario, 1900-2005

Article excerpt

She's single, black, and pregnant, and she's on welfare. And all these things are mentioned. Well, black is not mentioned. She's from Ethiopia. But the fact that she's on welfare is mentioned in the decision. The fact that she's pregnant is mentioned. The fact that she has had, you know, somewhat of a social life, and had a boyfriend in the past. So, some of this got mentioned in the appeal decision. Some of it's mentioned right in the file where the psychologist says, you know, how much chronic pain can she have if she can take a flight to Ethiopia? And she has had somewhat of a social life, having revealed to me that she recently . broke up with her boyfriend. This is something, these types of issues, I've never seen in other files, particularly a man's file. He's recently broken Up with. ... I've never read in any male worker's file anything about relationships as far as, relationships illustrating that they have a social life. (1)

THE ABOVE WORDS, spoken by Linda Vanucci, a Toronto lawyer who works in a legal clinic specializing in assisting injured workers with their workers' compensation claims, point to the principle concern of this paper: the gendering of the Ontario workers' compensation system over the course of the 20th century. If we understand gender as a set of processes, relationships, and structures that create and reproduce inequalities between women and men, (2) then it is clear that since its inception in the mid 1910s, the Ontario workers' compensation system has been structured and/or has functioned in ways that systematically disadvantage injured women workers. The mechanisms used to produce the various inequities have changed over this period. As the paper will show, while the present statute no longer excludes the bulk of women workers from basic coverage, or distinguishes between married and non-married women as dependents and survivors of men killed on the job, formal statutory visibility and equality is undermined by decision makers who continue to view women as secondary wage earners, who see them as biologically predisposed to certain kinds of injuries and illness, and, as the example above illustrates, who privilege their "social" over their working lives in the adjudication of their claims.

However, if we are to more fully understand the experience of this and other women as gendered, we need to situate their experiences within the role workers' compensation systems play in the larger political economy of capitalist production and labour market relations. According to Grant Duncan, "[w]orkers' compensation is an instrument of government, serving the political and economic objectives of minimizing a cause for industrial conflict and maximizing capital accumulation, while simultaneously managing the conduct of the injured worker." (3) As the paper will demonstrate, while workers' compensation laws were enacted with an eye towards ameliorating conflict between injured workers and their employers--and between labour and capital more generally, the laws and their administration have often led to individual and, more significantly, collective protest. That is, workers' compensation boards have not always been successful in "managing the conduct of the worker." With regard to maximizing capital accumulation, workers' compensation systems are class-based in form and practice: they are an institutional/ administrative manifestation of structural relations of embodied dominance that, while taking different forms for working class women and men, coerced both sexes into jobs that were low paying and inherently hazardous. (4) Early 20th century workmen's compensation laws were directed primarily at these jobs the "dangerous trades"--or those associated with heavy industrial or primary labour. While such an orientation might seem logical given that workers in such industries were seemingly more susceptible to accident and injury, that logic did not incorporate compensation rates that adequately attended to the economic needs of the injured worker. …