B.C. passes pay equity law

“Superficial” legislation adopted weeks before election call.

British Columbia has passed across-the-board pay equity legislation in what some critics are calling a last ditch effort to make good on an old promise before the province goes to the polls.

The NDP government introduced the legislation in late March, less than a month before Premier Ujjal Dosanjh called the election. Dosanjh committed his government to enacting pay equity legislation last November. The NDP has had two consecutive terms in power in the province.

“I made the commitment last fall to take action on pay equity. The time has come to stop this form of discrimination,” said the Premier.

Patricia Janzen, partner in the labour employment and human rights division in the Vancouver office of Fasken Martineau DuMoulin LLP, said while the legislation is quite unique in that it applies to all employers, public and private and regardless of size, it was rushed to save the lagging NDP government as they face a strong Liberal opposition.

“It’s very difficult to take this legislation seriously,” said Janzen. “It has a political purpose as opposed to seriously putting together a genuine pay equity scheme. I don’t think they have given it any real thought.”

The Liberal party is promising to review the legislation if elected, as political pundits are predicting. A judge would be appointed to examine the legislation, and a pay equity task force set up to review the issue.

“If (the Liberal party) reverses it, I think there will be a huge backlash,” said Angela Schira, secretary-treasurer of the B.C. Federation of Labour. “This is long overdue in B.C. We are one of the last provinces to introduce this type of legislation.”

The legislation amends the Human Rights Code to include pay equity rights. A pay equity policy currently exists for some provincial employees but not for municipal or private-sector employees. According to the B.C. Federation of Labour, the provincial government has already spent $400-million on pay equity for public sector employees.

Women in B.C. earn 73 cents for every dollar earned by men and according to government estimates, eight cents of that difference is directly attributable to pay discrimination and the undervaluing of women’s work.

“Workers in many occupations largely filled by women are paid less than workers in male-dominated fields,” said Attorney General Graeme Bowbrick. “In effect, women are subsidizing some sectors of the economy. Pay equity is the fair thing to do, and it is the right thing to do.”

The new legislation will ensure women and men are paid the same for jobs of equal value even if the work is different. It will be calculated on the basis of value — which will take into consideration factors like skill, responsibility, knowledge, working conditions and effort. Complaints will be filed with the Human Rights Commission. The government has earmarked $500,000 for the commission to pay for five new positions to handle the extra workload. A pay equity co-ordinator will also be hired to track the efforts of the legislation. The plan also calls for a public education campaign headed by the Ministry of Women’s Equality.

With an election lurking in the background, critics say the legislation was rushed to appease voters, with the end result being legislation that is “superficial” and a nightmare to enforce.

Janzen isn’t convinced pay equity legislation is the best solution to addressing pay discrimination based on gender. Comparing the numbers from B.C to those of post-pay equity legislation Ontario, Janzen said it appears similar legislation hasn’t made a great impact. (In 1997, women in B.C. earned 72 per cent of men’s earnings and in post-legislation Ontario, women made 73.1 per cent according to Statistics Canada.)

“There is no significant evidence that it works. There’s a huge public cost at attempting to fix the problem but poor actual results. The legislative fix of pay equity has a pretty poor track record,” she said.

The legislation is flawed because the evaluation system doesn’t take into account other factors — like market forces — that contribute to pay differences across industries, she said, pointing to the high-tech sector where pay is tied to supply and demand and not necessarily “value.”

“It’s far too superficial and will lead to anomalous results because of the methodology.”

According to the legislation, the government plans to keep the costs to employers at no more than one per cent of annual payroll and will recognize the efforts on the part of employers that have voluntary pay equity plans.

But Janzen said the costs will still be high and employers aren’t convinced differences in pay are attributable to discrimination or undervaluing.

“Most employers believe that women should be treated fairly but many aren’t convinced there has been a disparity in wages by other factors.”

But Schira said women have been shouldering that cost for years.

“The issue of cost is paying women their value. Yes, there will be costs, but women have been carrying an unfair economic burden.”

Other issues around the legislation include its lack of adequate guidelines for employers.

The legislation, said Janzen, a meager two-pages, does not list criteria for evaluating work and has no general guidelines for employers. “There is no flesh and bones on this legislation. It is virtually unworkable.”

The legislation is to take effect June 1, 2002.

Meanwhile, in Ontario, five public-sector unions are taking the province to court for the second time in an attempt to recover $140 million in pay equity payments. The unions — the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), the Ontario Nurses’ Association, the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, the Service Employees International Union and the United Steelworkers of America — are asking the court to order the Ontario government to pay some 100,000 women adjustments under the Pay Equity Act from 1999 and to continue funding the payments until pay equity is achieved, an estimated 10 years. The female workers have only received a third of what was owing to them under the legislation.

“The (Ontario) government is trying to cheat these women out of their right to non-discriminatory wages for work comparable to other male publicly funded work,” said Judy Darcy, national president of CUPE.

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