Time for government to walk the walk on pay equity

October 18, 2018

BY HASSAN YUSSUFF, September 24, 2018

The federal government is launching the first ever Gender Equality Week on September 23. 

It’s a laudable – and clearly necessary – effort because far too many women in Canada have yet to attain parity when it comes to how much they earn for the work they do.

Addressing this should be at the centre of the federal government’s priorities, otherwise designating a week to “celebrate the progress we’ve made in advancing gender equality in Canada” won’t mean a whole lot.

One of the most persistent barriers to gender equality in Canada is the gender wage gap. Women make up almost half of the Canadian workforce, yet women overall make 32 percent less than men. Women of colour, Indigenous women, and women with a disability (or who have any combination of these characteristics), earn even less than their white, able-bodied counterparts.

These ongoing inequities have persisted for decades and impact women regardless of their socio-economic status, or educational attainment. This dismal situation has become the status quo.

A number of factors contribute to these gaps, including lack of affordable child care and home care, persistent discriminatory attitudes in hiring and promotion, and harassment and violence on the job.

Another exacerbating factor is the way our society undervalues the work that women do. Jobs that are traditionally performed by women are habitually paid less than jobs dominated by men, even when those jobs require the same amount of skill, effort, and responsibility, or have similar working conditions. 

This systemic wage discrimination is deeply-rooted, just like the gender stereotypes that reinforce these differences in pay. There’s no logical reason that child care workers are paid so poorly – it’s a reflection of how little we value the labour involved in caregiving.  

In 2004, a federal Pay Equity Task Force laid out the path for a proactive approach to ending sexist wage discrimination in Canada. Fourteen years later, we’re still waiting to see action on their recommendations, despite consistent and persistent calls from labour and women’s organizations. The 2018 federal budget promised legislation implementing proactive pay equity for workers in the federal jurisdiction. That’s good news – but we have yet to see how far the legislation will go.

The law must reinforce that pay equity is a fundamental human right. The right to equal pay for work of equal value has been internationally recognized for over 65 years.

Here at home, Canada’s Charter and the country’s Human Rights Act protect women from discrimination on the basis of sex. Employers aren’t supposed to be creating or maintaining gendered differences in wages for work of equal value.  

Any new legislation must also undo the damage of the previous government’s attempt to redefine pay equity as a bargaining issue rather than as a human right. It stripped public service unions of the ability to represent their members in making complaints.

Our current system must be fixed so that employers are responsible for identifying and correcting systemic wage discrimination rather than relying on workers to lodge complaints to address imbalances. Unions must have a role in achieving and maintaining pay equity. Without these two key pieces in place, the system will remain cumbersome, lengthy, and expensive.

While the law is aimed at addressing discrimination on the basis of gender, there should be a requirement to examine compensation with an eye to identifying where other grounds of discrimination may also be a factor.

Without oversight and enforcement, there won’t be any progress. That necessitates the creation of a an autonomous commission focused specifically on pay equity. Led by a Pay Equity Commissioner with sufficient resources, the commission would provide the expertise to oversee the process, provide assistance and training for employers and workers’ representatives, monitor and enforce the legislation, and help build broader buy-in.

There’s already proactive legislation in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba, and New Brunswick and plenty of jurisprudence to help with some of the thornier technicalities that need to be worked out. Canada’s unions stand ready to help ensure that we get this legislation right.  

The government has an opportunity to finally deliver on a promise that women have been waiting on for too long. Frankly, we’re all done waiting.

Hassan Yussuff is the president of the Canadian Labour Congress.

This article appeared in the Toronto Sun on September 24, 2018

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