A Toronto legal clinic dedicated to female victims of violence now has some extra financial backing to advocate for women facing harassment and coercion in the workplace due to their precarious job status.
The Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which uses its legal might to advocate for women’s rights, is one of seven agencies benefiting from an extra infusion of funding — $1.5 million — from United Way Greater Toronto over three years as part of the United Way’s effort to tackle a range of community challenges linked to poverty.
The cash allocations, being pulled from the United Way’s annual fundraising campaign account, are being divvied up among community agencies spearheading initiatives tailored toward taking on a broad scope of community issues: from youth homelessness, to supporting LGBTQ2S survivors of violence and affordable housing.
Barbra Schlifer is charged with the women’s issues file, and the clinic’s executive director, Amanda Dale, said the $300,000 earmarked over three years will go a long way to fuelling a campaign against workplace harassment, which comes on the heels of a surging #MeToo movement.
“The United Way’s tone-setting study — Getting Left Behind — shows that those who are stuck in the labour system at low levels of compensation are racialized women with precarious work,” Dale said. “In our experience, women in those jobs are more prone to harassment, coercion and sexual violence.”
Since #MeToo began, Barbra Schlifer’s has seen an 84 per cent hike in its overall request for services.
Dale speculates a key driver in the spike “is the overall climate in being able to finally speak out.”
The number of women seeking a variety of assistance jumped to 7,000 in March 2018 from 4,700 in the fiscal year ending March 2017.
“One of the notable areas of growth is specifically from women in precarious work situations who are being harassed and coerced,” Dale said.
“We know that it’s likely these women are mostly racialized and the situations they are in make the usual legal protections of limited value,” Dale said. “That is, when you are most vulnerable to losing work, and the consequences of doing so are dire, challenging your boss through the usual legal means is much harder.”
Barbra Schlifer’s project will stir up advocacy aimed at curtailing sexual assault, harassment and coercion in the workplace by launching research, focus groups and a public campaign.
“We will convene a table of common purpose first, and then select a prone industry (like restaurants or hotel or cleaning work) and with our partners devise outreach and legal information,” she said.
In addition, Dale and her team will “also work with affected women to devise some scaled policy or legal reform to specific areas that trap women (this may be in immigration, municipal bylaw or labour codes) to reform,” Dale said.
She emphasized that while the #metoo movement is gaining strength, the reality for many women has not improved and the number of precariously employed women requesting law-related help has increased.
Dale has rallied some extra support.
“We therefore decided to work in partnership with other community agencies serving at-risk groups of women to consult women themselves, as well as their trusted community supports (including our own ancillary services), to devise outreach that can gather creative and safer ideas for intervention over time,” she said.
She said women in need of safer intervention strategies include those with tenuous immigration status, women in non-unionized jobs and females working in part-time or temporary roles, and they may be fearful about repercussion of filing complaints about harassment in the workplace.
In many cases, taking a legal route to fight those battles, unfortunately, “can cause more harm than good,” she said. “We need to find more creative ways to assist them.”
Barbra Schlifer has recently dedicated much of her efforts toward legal reforms to labour, housing and criminal laws for sexual abuse survivors.
“This project will build on this as well as our role as front line adviser and work with other United Way funded service providers to build support pathways for these vulnerable workers,” she said.
The project envisions several phases over the three-year duration including data gathering, coalition building, a support an outreach phase — culminating with a service and system change phase.
Daniele Zanotti, president and CEO of United Way Greater Toronto, said the $1.5 million earmarked for the program is on top of the funds already allocated in 2018 to the selected agencies.
“To reduce poverty we’re going to need to address some of the deeper systemic barriers in a new way,” Zanotti said of the driving force behind the additional help being doled out. The aim is to foster collaboration between lead agencies and other groups to work in tandem in taking on the issues.
Barbra Schlifer has now brought together groups like the Centre for Research and Education, Osgoode Law School, The Equal Pay Coalition and UNIFOR Women’s Rights division, partners they have worked with on past initiatives.
“It not only diversifies who’s at the table, but solutions and how we’re going to address it,” he said.
United Way raised $105 million in 2017, surpassing its largest goal ever. The money raised was then dispensed to 270 agencies — to address needs such as food insecurity, homelessness, mental health, seniors programs and domestic violence — across Toronto and Peel regions. This year’s campaign goal is $110 million, with final amount raised to be announced Feb. 7.