Make pay equity an election issue
On International Women’s Day this year, Linda McQuaig --
journalist and best-selling co-author of The Trouble with Billionaires -- wondered how a hedge fund manager could earn 82,000 times as much as a nurse. Is he really working 82,000 times as hard, or contributing 82,000 times as much to society?
If the answer is “no”, pay equity is designed to even out the discrepancies. Simply put, pay equity reflects the right to equal pay for work of equal value.
Buy pay equity legislation is determined by federal and provincial governments, who are in turn affected by various groups with power and influence, the democratic will of the electorate and changing political priorities.
While provinces have made some progress, the Canadian government has consistently failed in achieving equal pay for Canadian citizens.
The income gap has narrowed since federal pay equity legislation was first introduced in the 1970s, but women continue to make substantially less than their male co-workers.
McQuaig addressed this discrepancy at the 24th Annual Equality Breakfast hosted by West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund for Women. She described how women’s salaries went from about 65 per cent of men’s income to 70 per cent after initial pay equity legislation was passed under the Trudeau Liberal-minority government. The problem, however, is that women’s incomes have tended to remain more or less at that level ever since, leveling out at about 79 per cent today. Shockingly, women of colour earn about 64 per cent of male wages, and Aboriginal women are stuck at 46 per cent of male wages.
Why? According to McQuaig, this doesn’t have to be the status quo.
“The economic doctrine that we hear all the time bandied about is that incomes are determined by the natural forces of the marketplace. There is nothing natural about the workings of the marketplace. In fact, the market place is governed by laws that are made by humans. You can change the laws and get very different income results. For instance, the hedge fund managers who are making such a killing on Wall Street are doing that under the banking laws that prevail today," McQuaig said.
"Thirty years ago, we had very different banking laws and it wasn’t possible for the big players to make anywhere near as much. Similarly, corporate CEOs are making dramatically more today then they were back then. The reason is not that CEOs are more productive now; the reason is changes in laws governing executive stock options which have allowed their incomes to soar. In other words, incomes are determined by the particular laws that are in place at a particular time.”
Over time, social movements and their influence have fluctuated, resulting in changing social policy and legislation, McQuaig argued.
“Women have traditionally been a group with minimal power. That’s the reason that their pay has traditionally lagged behind that of men. But that began to change with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of political action on the part of women,” she said.
In 1972, Canada ratified the Convention on Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value and in 1977 a pay equity provision was added to the Canadian Human Rights Act.
In the last decade, progress has stalled on equitable compensation. A report released in 2004 by the Pay Equity Task Force urged the federal government to adopt legislation that was more in line with Ontario and Quebec’s more pro-active legislation that extends into the private sector. The minority government in place at the time promised to take action, but stronger pay equity legislation failed to fall into place before power was handed over from the Liberals to the Conservatives.
The Conservative government rejected recommendations from the federal task force and enacted the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act. This act redirected complaints from the Canadian Human Rights Commission where pay equity was addressed as a right, to the Public Service Labour Relations Board, stripping women of court-based recourse.
All this means that exploding wage gaps in North America continue to disproportionately affect women, racialized women and people with little power.
Conversely, how do wage disparities measure up against the salary of a Canadian member of Parliament -- not a female-dominated job classification? Well, while the salaries of MPs have been frozen at the 2010-11 level, the base salary is $157,731. MPs who have extra responsibilities, such as the prime minister, Speaker or leader of the Opposition receive additional compensation.
Thus, Minister for Status of Women Rona Ambrose earns $157,731. In B.C., Vancouver Quadra’s Joyce Murray earns $157,731, as does Jim Abbott in Kootenay-Columbia and Alex Atamanenko in British Columbia Southern Interior. Speaker Peter Milliken earns a total of $233,247. Stephen Harper’s salary doubles to $315,462, and if Jack Layton surges to become leader of the opposition, he will earn an additional $53,694 for a total of $211,425.
These members of parliament make decisions about pay for the federally-regulated labour force, including civil servants and other sectors such as banks, broadcast companies, railroads, airlines and telecommunications companies.
Pay equity hasn’t been a huge discussion on the campaign trail for the major parties, but most have a position on the issue. Green Party MPs will "pass pay equity legislation, as recommended by the Pay Equity Task Force, immediately implement full pay equity for women employed in the federal sector and develop tax incentives for companies to meet the highest standards of gender and pay equity." The Bloc Qubecois platform includes mention of adopting a federal pay equity act. New Democrats "will reverse Stephen Harper's attacks on pay equity and immediately implement the recommendations of the 2004 Pay Equity Task Force." Similarly, the Liberal party platform stipulates that it would reverse the Harper government's decision and "create an effective, proactive system for implementing and monitoring pay equity at the federal level in which equality is again recognized as a human right." The Conservative Government's platform for the 2011 election does not include direct mention of pay equity.
Going back to the hedge fund manager and the nurse, McQuaig compared the relatively high income of corporate CEOs with the relatively low income of those in female dominated job classifications. “The gigantic pay of those in the financial sector and the relatively low pay of nurses has nothing to do with merit, or contribution to society, and a lot to do with who gets to make the rules.”
What McQuaig advised in her speech and continues to stress in her professional work is that Canadians should be fighting for pay equity legislation and stronger labour rights. Who we vote for, and the grassroots campaigning we engage in around social issues, can make a difference in determining who makes the rules and re-aligning the decision-making power.
Who will you vote for?