Human rights aren’t negotiable (Editor’s notes)

Federal government setting poor example by moving pay equity to bargaining table

Sometimes, I’m ashamed to be a guy. I mean, how else can you react when pay equity is still an unresolved issue?

What has me hanging my head a little lower at the moment is the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, proposed legislation covering federal workers that is designed to ensure equal pay for equal work.

On the surface, it looks great. Vic Toews, president of the Treasury Board, sure makes it sound promising. The old pay equity system “didn’t serve employees or employers well,” he says. No argument there.

“In many cases women were waiting 15 years or more for a resolution to pay equity complaints after grueling and divisive debates in courts,” he says. Wow. That’s a long time, and a lot of grief, for women to get what they should have been given all along. Sounds good so far.

But then some red flags start to go up. The Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) is slamming the move. Sure, it’s the union representing public sector workers and, yes, it’s never going to have a lovefest with its employer. But take a look at some of the language PSAC is using in criticizing the act.

“Pay equity is a fundamental human right that should not be taken away at a bargaining table where the employer historically holds the balance of power,” said John Gordon, PSAC national president.

Like all acts, the wording on the legislation can be a little clunky at times, but it essentially moves the notion of equal pay for equal work out of the human rights scheme and onto the bargaining table as an issue to be settled by market forces.

Think about that for a minute. When did basic human rights become negotiable? Substitute gender for any other protected ground and the lunacy of this notion quickly comes to light. Would it be acceptable to have different levels of pay for Christians versus Muslims, and then say, “Well, settle it at the bargaining table.” What if gay people earned less than heterosexuals? Would the solution be to say, “Oh well. Hammer it out when the next contract comes up.”

If it’s not acceptable for any other protected group, why is it OK to treat women’s pay in this manner? And is this how the federal government — which should be the unquestioned leader on this front — is going to deal with pay equity for its workers? Really? This is the example it’s going to set for employers?

There are some valid reasons out there to explain part of the pay gap. Women are more likely to take time off work to raise a family. Women are more likely to work part time, which usually pays less than full-time careers. But this isn’t an argument that should be won on semantics.

I don’t have the solution to pay equity but I know this certainly isn’t it. Ottawa needs to address pay equity in a meaningful way that provides a blueprint for all employers.

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