Women in the federal public service may soon see their right to pay equity negotiated away at the bargaining table, which some say will critically undermine women’s internationally-recognized human right to equal pay for equal value of work.
According to the Harper government, Canadian taxpayers have covered over $4-billion in pay equity disputes and settlements heard at the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC) since the right for equal pay was introduced in 1977. The government’s proposal – known as the Public Service Equitable Compensation Act – would forbid CHRC from hearing pay equity complaints from federal public servants – a body of 400,000 workers – and instead make it an issue for negotiations during collective bargaining, claiming that both the employer and the union will be responsible for ensuring equitable compensation.
The Act is rolled into Bill C-10 – the Budget Implementation Act, which includes urgent provisions for an economic stimulus – which cleared the House of Commons on March 4, despite criticism from all three opposition parties, and moved to the Senate the same day, where it presently being studied.
The Act received heavy criticism in the Fall Economic Update, contributing to a decision to prorogue Parliament.
Removing a Human Right
Patty Ducharme, the National Executive Vice-President for Public Service Alliance Canada (PSAC) – a 166,000-member union that represents federal public service workers – was furious that a convention of the Canadian Human Rights Act might be removed.
“You’re negotiating a human right at the bargaining table,” said Ducharme, explaining that pay equity may just get swapped in favour of other benefits. “It’s oppressive. It’s repressive. It’s ideologically-driven and heavy-handed.”
PSAC believes its members may be further jeopardized because the union is not allowed to assist its members in filing a pay equity complaint without receiving a $50,000 fine.
“Last time I checked, unions have a mandate that says they must represent their members,” said Ducharme. “There’s no public servant employee who has pockets deep enough to take on the federal government.”
In 2000, after over 20 years in court, PSAC settled the largest pay equity case in Canada, leaving the federal government accountable to paying PSAC members $3.2-million in wage-gap differences and interest.
Sue Genge, National Representative (Women and Human Rights) for the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC), a federation of unions nation-wide, agreed that the bill has put PSAC in a difficult position.
“They’re caught,” Genge said. “PSAC has to represent their members, but they’ll be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars if they do.”
Ducharme admitted that PSAC was unsure how to proceed if the legislation passed through the Senate.
“To bring a pay equity case requires a lot of research studies,” Genge explained, noting that funding had been cut from many women’s groups that provided support during pay equity complaints. “You can’t only know how you do, but how everyone else does relative to you.”
Two Rights Regimes
“There will now be two regimes of pay equity in Canada,” explained Genge. “Federal public service workers will be subject to new legislation, while other federal sector employees – like crown corporations – will still be able to file under the Canadian Human Rights Commission.”
Over 80 female lawyers, academics, and professionals sent a letter to the Harper government urging the removal of the Act from the budget, on the basis of human rights violation.
“It undermines, rather than fulfills, the commitment to eliminating sex discrimination from pay practices, and does not provide women federal public servants with effective access to a remedy if their rights are violated,” the letter read.
Canada’s position on pay equity lies in stark contrast to recent policy shifts in the United States, as Obama’s first bill signed into law on January 29 improved the conditions for women to sue over pay equity.
“Obama committed to not balance the budget on the backs of working women, which is exactly what this government is refusing to say,” said Ducharme. “It’s a very sad day when we in Canada allow the removal of human rights from a section of our population.”
While the current bill targets federal public service workers, London, Ontario Member of Parliament Irene Mathyssen, the NDP’s critic for the Status of Women, was concerned that this federal policy shift could expand to other federal sectors or set a precedent for provincial legislation, where labour law issues are regulated.
“It sends a bad message to provinces and territories that proactive pay equity doesn’t matter,” said Mathyssen. “It tells employers that this government isn’t going to fight for women.”
Genge noted that the Harper government’s focus on federal public service workers may expand.
“If they can get away with this, then they will keep pushing [pay equity reform] to other sectors.” Genge said.
Mathyssen and others called for a proactive approach to pay equity – forcing employers to pursue strategies for equitable compensation, rather than operating on a complaint basis.
In 2004, the Federal Pay Equity Task Force – appointed by the Federal Ministers of Justice and Labour to review the equal pay provisions of the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Equal Wages Guidelines in 1986 – released their recommendations for adopting a more proactive pay system federally after a three-year-study, none of which have been implemented by the Liberal or Conservative governments, the latter of which has presided over the removal of the Task Force’s report from the Department of Justice’s web site.
“The Act makes it appear that the government is legislating to advance pay equity, yet many dimensions of the new legislation will undermine existing protections,” explained McGill Law professor Colleen Sheppard.
“Law reform should enhance rather than undermine existing human rights,” Sheppard said.
Presently, Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba have proactive pay equity laws.
With a large wave of expected retirees from federal public service jobs in the next five years, Mathyssen expected that the Act would diminish recruitment of women to the federal sector.
“It sends some really upsetting messages to young women who may have considered a job in the federal public service,” Mathyssen said. “It’s telling young women that there is no future here.”
Canadian women with university degrees earn 68-cents on the male dollar – an average 2.5-cents below women’s earnings nationally, according to statistics from the CLC. Unionized women receive 93-cents for every male dollar, on average.
“Young women are starting to recognize the ‘gapzilla,’” said Genge, noting that most don’t note the profound difference in wages that still exists.
Mathyssen explained that the Act was part of a trend to systematically undermine equality for women.
“Their reforms are part of a trend to cut out women’s rights,” she said. “I’m expecting that we’ll once again be censured by the United Nations, and that will be the umpteenth time in the past few years that we’re going to hear that Canada isn’t doing enough for the status of women.”
“This government is profoundly anti-equality and anti-women,” Genge agreed. “We’re talking about the removal of a right.”
Both were expecting that either a change in government or a court challenge on the basis of violating human rights would be necessary courses of action if the Bill passed the Senate.
“There is a significant fight ahead,” Mathyssen said.
The changing status of women under the Harper government
1) Stopped funding to the Court Challenges Programme
2) Changed funding criteria for Status of Women Canada’s Women’s Programme, precluding support for advocacy or lobbying for law reform
3) Cancelled the Status of Women Independent Research Fund
4) Ended child care agreements with the provinces
The article originally stated that PSAC was granted $3.2-billion in settlements, rather than $3.2-million. The Daily regrets the error.