Pay Attention to Pay Inequity

11 October 2004
October 11, 2004

Despite over twenty-five years legislation, women living in Canada still earn less than men regardless of their occupation, age or education. On average, a woman earns 72.5 cents for every dollar that a man earns. This wage gap is even greater for Aboriginal women, immigrant women and women of colour.

Over the next few months, the National Association of Women and the Law (NAWL) will be collaborating with partner organizations to draw attention to the federal pay equity system and recent efforts by women’s groups and trade unions to improve it. In May 2004, the federally appointed Pay Equity Task Force released its final report, Pay Equity: A New Approach to a Fundamental Right , with over 100 recommendations to reform the federal pay equity system. The report adopted several of NAWL’s recommendations which were submitted to the pay Equity Task Force in December 2002.

Pay equity is the law

Pay equity is the right to equal pay for work of equal value. If you are a woman, this means that you have the right to be paid just as much as a man for work that has comparable working conditions and requires a similar level of skill, effort and responsibility. As a fundamental right, pay equity is constitutionally protected by the equality provision in section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Canadian Human Rights Act promotes pay equity by prohibiting differences in wages between female and male employees working in the same establishment and doing work of “equal value”. This law applies to employees who are working in the federal public sector or in private sector businesses, which fall under federal jurisdiction, such as banks, CN Rail and Canada Post. Several provinces, such as Quebec, Ontario and Manitoba also have specific pay equity legislation which applies to the provincial public sector and/or to private sector businesses within provincial jurisdiction.

Problems with pay equity

The federal pay equity system is plagued with several problems, including inaccessibility, unclear litigious terms in the legislation and an ineffective complaints-based model. This model places the responsibility to make pay equity work on the shoulders of the more vulnerable party – individual women workers – rather than on independent oversight agencies or employers.

It is the responsibility of individual employees to bring forward pay equity complaints to the Canadian Human Rights Commission (CHRC). The CHRC is an independent agency that reports to Parliament and is responsible for supervising the implementation of the Canadian Human Rights Act, the Equal Wages Guidelines and the Employment Equity Act. After investigating a complaint, the CHRC decides whether or not to refer the file to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal for adjudication.

Few women are able to successfully bring forward a complaint; the entire process is too long, too costly and extremely frustrating, especially for non-unionized women. Although the CHRC claims it has successfully reduced processing times for complainants, many women never even make it to the complaint stage due to a variety of obstacles: poverty, a lack of legal assistance or an overriding fear that filing a complaint may result in the loss of employment.

Adopt a proactive pay equity framework

The Pay Equity Task Force was established in June 2001 by the federal government, under the direction of the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Labour. Its mandate was to review and propose changes to the current federal pay equity framework. The Task Force consulted a variety of stakeholders including employees, employers, trade unions, researchers and women’s organizations. Many working for women’s equality saw the appointment of the Task Force as a measured response to the effective lobbying of women’s groups and trade unions. It was also a clear acknowledgement that aspects of the federal system needed to be revamped.

One of the most important recommendations from the final report urges the federal government to adopt a new proactive pay equity law which would be considered human rights legislation. Proactive elements of the legislation would include an employer’s obligation to review pay practices and identify gender-based wage discrimination gaps. Employers would also have a duty to develop a pay equity plan to eliminate pay inequities within a definite time frame.

Equally significant is the recommendation that coverage against wage discrimination be expanded to groups facing additional forms of discrimination: Aboriginal people, persons with disabilities, people of colour. New pay equity legislation would create mechanisms to measure and eliminate systemic discrimination against these designated groups without duplicating the Employment Equity Act.+

Pay inequity continues to hurt women and children by contributing to poverty, inadequate housing, poor health and general social exclusion. With a new and vibrant pay equity campaign, NAWL hopes to remind federal politicians that advancing women’s equality requires that they pay attention to pay equity by implementing key recommendations.

You can also read the full report of the Task Force on Pay Equity at the following sites: (in English). (in French).

The report has been archived. – NAWL Administrator, 2009

Patricia Harewood is a National Program student (LL.B) at the University of Ottawa and a part-time student researcher at NAWL.

about NAWL
The National Association of Women and the Law is a not-for-profit feminist organization that promotes the equality rights of women through legal education, research and law reform advocacy.
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