Canada’s Leadership in Pay Equity Eroding
Emanuela Heyninck, pay equity commissioner of Ontario, speaks out against a threatened erosion of wage rights for Canadian women in traditionally female occupations.
Canadians have President Barack Obama to thank for raising awareness about equal pay and gender wage discrimination.
By passing the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act early in his administration, Obama extended the period during which an employee may file pay discrimination claims. That should strengthen the anti-discrimination provisions of the Equal Pay Act, which says female workers should be paid the same as male workers for the same work.
In Canada, we have a different wage-justice standard. It’s called pay equity, which is equal pay for work of equal value. Pay equity recognizes that women and men tend to work at different jobs, and that women’s work has historically been undervalued.
However, it is worrisome that Canada’s support for pay equity may be eroding with the introduction of a recent law, just as the United States is doing more for equal pay.
Ontario’s Pay Equity Act, passed in 1987, goes far beyond laws such as the Equal Pay Act in many ways.
It requires that jobs traditionally done by women, such as secretaries, be evaluated and compared to jobs usually done by men, such as service technicians, using a gender-neutral comparison system. If the value of the secretary and the service technician job classes are about the same, the jobs must be paid the same.
There is no federal pay equity law in the United States even though all developed countries are signatories to pay-equity conventions that, since the 1950s, have called it a human right. Gender-equity advocates in the United States are beginning to raise the banner of pay-equity.
But here in Canada, the federal government may be weakening its commitment to female wages with its recent law to “modernize” pay equity for public sector employees.
Several key aspects and mechanisms of the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act–part of the government’s 2009 budget implementation bill–fuel our concern.
First, the act never uses the words “pay equity” nor does it talk about systemic discrimination. Instead, it refers to an unknown and undefined concept of “equitable compensation.”
Second, pay equity works by comparing the value of female dominant jobs to male dominant jobs — yet there is no definition of male dominant jobs in the proposed act.
Finally, the bill introduces “market forces” as a basis for job assessment.
From an anti-discrimination point of view, this is not good news. Market forces have tended to undervalue women’s labor force activities. Gender segregation of women in “pink” collar jobs, and the arrangement of paid employment and care-giving work–inside and outside of the market–contribute to this undervaluation. Introducing market forces may reinforce rather than challenge gender-based inequalities that arose from the market in the first place.
Ontario’s Pay Equity Commission is responsible for the enforcement and implementation of one of the most progressive laws on pay equity in the country.
Our law covers all public employers and all private employers with more than 10 employees. In other provinces, only the public sector is covered, or non-legislative approaches are applied. The exception is Quebec, where the pay equity legislation is similar to that of Ontario.
Our office investigates and resolves complaints of alleged contraventions and we routinely monitor businesses for compliance. We also conduct free seminars and provide extensive educational materials for employers, unions and employees. Quebec provides similar functions.
Hopefully, the government’s “modernization” law won’t turn the clocks back on all of this.
Emanuela Heyninck is Ontario’s Pay Equity Commissioner.
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