A front line worker’s reflections on race, gender, and class in a woman’s shelter
by Charlotte Gilman
Front line workers in women’s shelters perform essential, yet underappreciated labour. Our work begins before women even come to a shelter. We respond to crisis calls, giving immediate support and information each time we pick up the phone. We clean up rooms and ensure that they are stocked with essential items like bed sheets, towels, blankets, and toiletries. When a woman arrives to the shelter, we invite her to have a meal and support her while she settles in.
When she is ready, we sit down with her and listen as she tells her story, perhaps for the first time, providing non-judgmental support. We stand by her side as she works through oppressive systems by asking, “How can we support your advocacy? What do you need from us?”
When a woman is considering ending her life, we hear her struggles and empathize with her situation. The heart of this job is a gendered form of labour known as care work that is undervalued in society – even within Feminist agencies. According to Donna Baines’ 2004 article “Caring for Nothing,” care work is unrecognized and under-compensated. It is associated with women’s unpaid work in the domestic sphere and in social service settings, it is often considered voluntary despite being crucial to any given organization.
As workers at women’s shelters, care work, as described above, makes up the majority of our work. However, in an age of “service delivery,” “outcome measures,” and “standardization,” care work is both ignored and devalued. As labourers of care, frontline workers are vulnerable to continued funding cuts which increasingly manifests itself as workplace violence, including bullying and pressure from management for workers to intensify both care work as well as administrative tasks tied to service delivery.
According to Ann Porter’s 2012 article, “Neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism and Canadian social policy,” the Canadian government has defunded over 30 women’s organizations and has made advocacy-based programs ineligible for funding. Instead, funding is redirected to for-profit organizations and tied to outcomes-based services. This approach cannot adequately measure or compensate the care work done by shelter workers as it prioritizes andro-centric norms of productive work that emphasize meeting service goals.
In turn, the state’s funding constraints shape the view of feminist practice by the Executive Directors, CEOs, and managers of women shelters. Staff seek to be empowering individual women, including workers, but must make due with limited resources.
As a frontline worker in women’s services, I have observed that current employment practices subordinate the care work that we do. Specifically, management requires workers to practice within Feminist frameworks without adequate resources. We find ourselves working in uncertain circumstances with increased caseloads and fewer staff on any given shift. We do not know how long we will last as it seems that every week, another sister is forced out. This vulnerability is amplified by race, gender, and class, as the care work of certain groups of women are further devalued due to their position within the shelter and society.
As an example, my current employer recently required relief staff, workers who work on an on-call, as-needed, no-guaranteed-hours basis, to be available for 50 percent of all hours. This commitment of 84 hours per week is well over two full-time jobs. Relief staff were asked to fill out a form that charted their availability.
Officially, this form aimed to ensure adequate staffing by identifying workers who could not maintain 50% availability for remedial intervention.
However, the standpoint of relief workers reveals how work is deeply gendered, class stratified, and racialized at the shelter. Relief workers earn as little as 72 cents per hour for every dollar earned per hour by their full-time counterparts – a figure that jarringly mirrors the national gender wage gap, as reported in 2012 by the Pay Equity Commission, in which women earn 74 cents per every dollar earned for every dollar earned by men. Despite doing equal work, relief workers are further feminized through pay inequity.
The form also erased how the shelter relies on relief staff to fill in for full-time contract positions. The relief workers are in a precarious situation, as the employer demands them to increase their availability without adequate compensation. They receive no benefits, no sick time, and no vacation time despite increased expectations of work. Essentially, this form creates an exploitative dependency to the employer as relief workers are reified as second-class workers within the shelter.
The relief team primarily consists of women of colour and immigrant women. As workers marked by race, relief workers are often juggling multiple, low-paying jobs due to systemic racism in the labour market. However, relief workers are disposable to the employer if they cannot commit more than half of their lives to doing care work at the shelter. As a group of workers who are already stretching themselves across multiple locations and priorities, relief workers are forced to be elastic.
The 50 percent availability form constructs women by their relationship to their labour; the form denies relief workers of their personhood as their identities, such as being mothers, students, and organizers, are overlooked. By stripping relief workers of their personhood, and by ignoring the systemic barriers that relief workers face as Women of Colour and Immigrant Women, the form allows management to identify which bodies must be disciplined – to be stretched and snapped.
Fifty percent availability does not allow for a meaningful life – there is no time for family, goals, health, and well being. 50 percent availability ignores that relief workers often go home to do more care work in their homes. 50 percent availability denies relief workers their humanity and positions them in violent workplace situations. In a shelter that prides itself, above all, to be a haven from violence, I ask, for whom do women’s shelters provide safety?
Donna Baines, “Caring for Nothing: Work Organization and Unwaged Labour in Social Service,” Work, Employment and Society (June, 2004)
Ann Porter, “Neo-conservatism, neo-liberalism and Canadian social policy,” Canadian Woman Studies (Spring 2012)