By Jan Borowy & Fay Faraday
In the 1970s and ’80s, women in the labour movement fought to end pay discrimination and close the gender pay gap. Still, today, thousands of women in their unions and community organizations find the fight for pay equity and women’s economic equality is far from over.
Nancy John, president of Ontario Public Service Employees’ Union (OPSEU) Local 161, knows the impact of the gender pay gap firsthand. She took on the undervaluing of her work and has won some battles. But she agrees the overall fight is by no means won.
For over 30 years, Nancy has worked as a community support worker at Community Living Tillsonburg, a small agency in southwestern Ontario. Each day she and her co-workers, almost all of whom are women, take care of over 80 adults with developmental disabilities. The clients live in homes where they work on their skills to lead as independent a life as possible. Nancy has been active in her union for years. She has fought to have her work fully valued. She witnessed the attempt to enforce pay equity in her workplace.
In 1994, a pay equity analysis of her workplace was done, and it showed that Nancy and other women in her workplace were being paid anywhere from $3.60 to $14.96 per hour less than men doing work of similar value. Today, Nancy’s pay still remains about $12.27 below the pay equity male target wage. If her employer had got his way, she would not have received any pay equity adjustments.
One major barrier to winning pay equity, Nancy John says, is how people dismiss work like hers as being that of a “glorified babysitter,” which shows how badly women’s work is undervalued.
“I have a college diploma. I’m expected to act as a professional, taking care of my clients’ needs and lives, day in, day out,” she says. “I am the one responsible for planning a life with my clients. We set goals, plan meals, travel together, go to the movies — all activities of daily life. I’m there to care for them and to help them achieve their own personal goals, large or small.” Moreover, she points out, “the families expect us to be the constant support.”
Nancy and her co-workers aren’t alone in facing a gender pay gap. Across Canada, on average, women earn roughly 70 cents for every dollar a man earns. This is an average gender pay gap of about 30 per cent. But this “average” figure doesn’t capture the depth of the discrimination and inequality of working women’s experiences. The gender pay gap for Indigenous women is approximately 57 per cent. Racialized and immigrant women face a gap of 37 per cent to 39 per cent. Women who are recent immigrants earn 57 per cent of what a white man makes in similarly valued occupations. Women with disabilities face a 46 per cent pay gap.
That gap reflects real dollars that have a real impact on women’s lives. A 30 per cent wage gap looks like this: a woman works all year long, but, after mid-September, she works for free. Over a 45-year working career, that is like for working for 13 years for free.
Put another way, on average a woman has to work 15.5 months to earn what a man does in 12 months. To earn what a man would by age 65, on average a woman would need to work until she is 79.
But the pay gap isn’t just caused by devaluing women’s work.
The gender pay gap expands because of how women experience barriers to gaining access to secure and predictable decent work and pay. Over the past two decades, cutbacks in government spending (because of austerity agendas) have taken their toll on women’s wages. They have also caused women to have to fill in the gap, caused by reduced public services, through their unpaid care-giving labour at home. Unionization rates have declined, particularly in the private sector, which means women lose access to higher-paying jobs.
And the growth of precarious work — those part-time, contract, temporary and casual jobs — deepens the gender pay gap. Women are over-represented among these vulnerable workers, making up 70 per cent of part-time workers and over 60 per cent of workers who earn at or near the minimum wage.
Surely the Gender Pay Gap is Against the Law
Discriminatory wages are against the law. They are a violation of fundamental human rights. Pay equity is a fundamental human-rights remedy that compares the pay of workers in female-dominated and male-dominated jobs.
Pay equity laws represented important progress towards equality. They went beyond the existing framework of “equal pay for equal work” to a framework that ensured that women and men were paid equally for work of similar value, even if their jobs were not identical.
The right to pay equity has been recognized for generations:
- In 1972, Canada ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 100: Equal Pay For Work of Equal Value.
- After intense lobbying by women’s organizations and unions, in 1985 the federal government introduced protection for the right to equal pay for work of equal value in the Canadian Human Rights Act.
Over the next decade, pay equity laws were introduced in most provinces:
- In Ontario and Quebec, the pay equity law applies to both the public and private sector, and it allows almost exclusively female broader public sector workplaces to compare wages with larger publicly funded institutions that deliver similar services.
- Four provinces — Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island — have a specific pay equity law which applies to the public sector. Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, and British Columbia developed policy frameworks for negotiating pay equity for public sector employees.
As of April 2017, only Alberta has neither a pay equity law nor has it developed a pay equity negotiation framework. Alberta has the widest pay equity gap of all provinces at a shocking 41 per cent on average.
Pay equity laws and frameworks were a very important advancement and they have made some progress in narrowing the gender pay gap for some women. In Ontario, the gender pay gap was reduced from approximately 38 per cent, when the Act was introduced in 1987, to 30 per cent, where it remains stuck three decades later.
30 Years, Still Fighting, Still Waiting
Nancy John works at a broader public agency that, under the Pay Equity Act, is given leeway to phase in pay equity slowly.
As Nancy points out, “Ontario’s pay equity law only requires my employer to make annual adjustments at one per cent of total payroll.” That means her gender pay gap of over $12 per hour only gets closed at a rate of 20 cents each year. Nancy has already been waiting 23 years for discrimination-free wages. She says “at this rate, I will be retired before women in my workplace achieve the same rate as the male job of equal value.” The existing law just is not strong enough to deliver the redress women like her need.
To make matters worse, in 2010 her employer simply stopped making the legally required pay equity adjustments. Nancy and her co-workers were owed close to $1 million in back pay for pay equity.
Originally published in Our Times