Pay equity under review

Legislation needs updating for modern working world.

The legislative framework for federal pay equity in Canada is going under the microscope.

Possible changes being considered could see federally regulated employers given greater responsibility to ensure employees receive equal pay for work of equal value, as well as a better understanding of what “work of equal value” means.

In announcing the creation of a new task force to study the legislation, Anne McLellan, Minister of Justice, said that as the legislation hasn’t been changed since it was introduced in 1977, a review is needed to provide “clarity in the way in which pay equity should be implemented in a modern society.”

Claudette Bradshaw, Minister of Labour, said the task force “will ensure pay equity will be implemented more effectively and efficiently.”

“I think that everyone is in agreement that the current system has not been working well,” said Beth Bilson, dean of the college of law at the University of Saskatchewan and chair of the task force. People often complain about the length of time it takes to resolve complaints and the considerable costs involved, she said.

Bell Canada for example has been locked in a pay equity dispute with employees for years and the case continues to work its way through the courts.

Barbara Wyness, research and public affairs officer for the Union of Northern Workers, said she would like to see changes to the pay equity process.

Her union has been fighting a pay equity dispute with the government of the North West Territories for 11 years. “Hopefully they could make it a faster process,” she said. “The tribunal is a fairly slow process.”

The task force will review practices in other jurisdictions both in Canada and from around the world. “One possibility may be to place more of an onus on employers and corporations,” said Bilson. They could have to develop an ongoing system to monitor discrepancies in wages. There will still have to be some external mechanism to hear complaints, but going to tribunal should be a second rather than a first option.

But Wyness said obligating employers to follow a more detailed process to ensure pay equity won’t improve the situation. “It is a little like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” she said. “Very few employers will willingly smack their own fingers when they are caught in the cookie jar.”

The task force will also consider how employers can receive more guidance in creating a discrimination free workplace and the criteria that outline this could be made more clear.

“I think it would mean employers would have to engage in some kind of evaluation of the work that is done in their enterprise depending on whatever criteria is decided on, what comparators they should be using and so on,” said Bilson.

“It would be part of wage administration system to track those factors and ensure there wasn’t a gap on the basis of gender.”

In a lot of large enterprises most HR departments do a lot of analysis of jobs anyway, Bilson said. So it actually wouldn’t be excessively onerous to include an analysis on gender.

She admitted it would be another matter for smaller companies that will require some further consideration.

One of the greatest challenges to ensure pay equity is what exactly “work of equal value” means. In drafting pay equity legislation in the 1970s, it was underestimated how difficult it would be to establish that. “They thought there would be obvious criteria for evaluating jobs,” Bilson said. “It isn’t that easy to look at what goes into doing one job and compare it to what goes into doing another job.”

The task force will also be challenged to find common ground when opinions and existing practices cover such a wide spectrum. “There are people who think the whole idea of pay equity interferes with market forces,” said Bilson. “But with my discussions with employers I didn’t get that.”

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