Much work to be done on pay equity (Guest commentary)

Discriminatory pay affects women throughout their lives, costing each woman between $700,000 to $2 million US

On Jan. 1, Ontario’s Pay Equity Act turned 20 years old. While it has helped reduce the gender gap from 38 per cent in 1985, women still earn 29 per cent less than men, according to Statistics Canada.

The Equal Pay Coalition has launched a 20th anniversary campaign to mobilize employers and governments to carry out their responsibilities to close this gap and end the widespread pay discrimination women continue to face. We owe it to our daughters, mothers and grandmothers to revitalize and strengthen pay equity enforcement. We need to deliver pay justice to the current generation of working women and guarantee it for future generations.

Ontario women receive less for their work regardless of where they work, the size of their workplace or the precariousness of their work. The most vulnerable women — Aboriginals, minorities, immigrants and non-unionized workers — face an even greater wage gap. Minority women earn 36 per cent less than men and Aboriginal women earn 54 per cent less.

Discriminatory pay affects women throughout their lives, beginning with their first jobs and continuing into retirement. Young women graduating from high school earn 27 per cent less than male high school graduates. Young women graduating from university earn 16 per cent less than male graduates, but this pay gap widens as their careers progress. The median income of retired women is almost one-half that of older men. Over a lifetime, these pay gaps add up to enormous financial losses with Working Women in the United States estimating the total for each woman to be between $700,000 and $2 million US, depending on education level.

Gender-based pay inequities also contribute to higher poverty levels, with women and their children much more likely to be working for minimum wage and living in poverty than men. The longer the government waits to increase the minimum wage, the more the government contributes to women’s poverty and the pay gap.

Failed enforcement hurts economy

Failing to enforce pay equity harms businesses and governments. The World Economic Forum’s 2007 Global Gender Gap Report recognizes the key role these “remuneration gaps” play in impairing economies from realizing full potential. A province that allows women to be channelled into low-paid, undervalued work when the economy needs their skills and purchases will not be able to compete successfully in the global economy.

Despite the global commitment of Canada and other world governments to equal pay for work of equal value as an International Labour Organization (ILO) core labour standard, women are repeatedly faced with the argument that redressing their inequality is too costly and therefore does not make good business sense or good governmental policy.

For every year of inaction, the cost of redress is higher, the damage inflicted by the discrimination is deeper and the systemic benefits of equality fail to materialize.

Ontario’s persistent wage gap shows many women never received the benefit of the province’s legislation and others lost the gains they initially made for various reasons, including employer non-compliance, economic restructuring and inadequate government funding of pay equity adjustments and of the Pay Equity Commission and Hearings Tribunal.

Since the early 1990s, the government has reduced the budget of the Pay Equity Commission and Hearings Tribunal by one-half and eliminated funding for a pay equity legal clinic, denying many women access to pay equity justice.

Many employers failed to comply with the act and other women fell outside the act or its effective enforcement. Many employers have also not taken the necessary steps required by the Human Rights Code or collective agreement anti-discrimination provisions to remove the barriers facing women in gaining access to higher-paid occupations dominated by men. Employment equity as well as pay equity measures are needed to address the full gender pay gap.

Millions of dollars owed

Approximately 100,000 women working in predominantly female public-sector workplaces, such as child-care centres and small community agencies, are also being forced to work at discriminatory wages because, as of 2006, the province stopped paying the designated pay equity monies to close identified pay gaps. Based on the government’s own figures, $78.1 million is owing for 2006 and 2007, a further $77.6 million is owed in 2008 and about $1.32 billion will be owed from 2008-2011.

Over the last four months, about 5,000 Ontarians have joined the coalition’s campaign by signing postcards and an online petition calling for government action. The coalition, with its member organizations representing more than one-million Ontarians, is seeking meetings with the Minister of Labour, Minister of Finance and Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues to discuss the government’s 20th anniversary enforcement plans, including three key requests:

• increasing the minimum wage to $10 per hour retroactive to Jan. 1, 2008, as a pay equity down payment;

• full public funding of public sector pay equity adjustments; and

• full funding of the Pay Equity Commission, the Hearings Tribunal and legal support services for those claiming pay equity violations.

Mary Cornish is chair of the Equal Pay Coalition and a labour and human rights lawyer with Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre and Cornish in Toronto. She can be reached at [email protected] or visit for more information.

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