Pay Equity, Canadian Workers and the Feminist Movement

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Judy Fudge, University of Victoria
Guest Contributor

This blog post is part of the Federation Equity Portfolio’s ‘Equality Then and Now’ series, marking 40 years since the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. Look for more on this topic in upcoming posts and at Congress 2010.

The establishment of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (RCSW), which issued its path-breaking report 40 years ago, marked the second wave of the women’s movement in Canada.  It also provided an occasion for a public debate about the status and role of women in Canadian society in general and in the economy in particular. Law reform was embraced as the preferred strategy for achieving the goal of women’s equality.

However, three years of public hearings, scores of briefs by individuals and organizations, and dozens of studies by experts persuaded most of the Commissioners – the two male members remained obdurate – that women’s low pay was a problem that could not be remedied by the simple technique of formal equality.  Since women were engaged in different kinds of work from men, the Commission complained that equal pay for equal work legislation in Canada, which applied only in a limited number of cases in which women’s work was the same or identical to men’s, was too restrictive. Thus, the Report recommended the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, which the International Labour Organization adopted in 1951 in Convention 100, as a key component in a suite of measures designed to rectify the problem of women’s low pay and economic insecurity.

The Commission issued its Report at a moment of profound transition for women; the expanding welfare state created a demand for paid women workers and shifted some of the burden for the caring of elderly, infirm, or disabled and ill family members onto public services.

The Commission’s liberal framework tended to ignore class and race, and it filtered how the Commission understood and responded to the changes in the labour market and Canadian demographics, as well as the views of the women who made them known to the Commission.  But, despite these limitations, the Commission was committed to a vision of substantive economic equality for women workers. Most importantly, many of the recommendations of the RCSW, and especially equal pay for equal value, became a rallying cry for feminist organizations and activists.

Despite important legislative and judicial victories in achieving equal pay for equal work (which came to be known as pay equity in the 1980s) in the federal sector, the struggle to improve the pay of women who work in jobs that are predominantly (or historically have been) performed by women has been uphill and there have been many setbacks.  When the economy is weak and social conservatives are in power, women’s employment rights suffer. Equal pay for work of equal value, especially for women in the public sector, is particularly vulnerable to backlash. Most recently, in 2009 in response to the financial crisis, the federal Conservative government introduced the (perhaps ironically named) Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, which, by denying public sector employees the right to file a human rights claim in order to obtain equal pay for equal value, empties the right to pay equity in the federal public sector of any meaning.

There have been previous attacks on pay equity, especially by the Conservatives in the 1980s. However, in the past, women’s and labour organizations were able to mount an opposition that put a crimp in the government’s plans. A crucial legacy of the RCSW is that it provoked women to develop new organizations and to join in coalitions, of which the once strong and influential National Action Committee on the Status of Women is a prime example.

One of the key changes that have occurred since the RCSW issued its Report is that national women’s organizations, which were once supported by public money, have been cut off by the current government. Another key change is that policies to further equal pay for work of equal value have fallen off the public agenda, despite the fact that women continue to earn less than men. In 2007, the gap in income between men and women in Canada was 21 per cent. Although Canada's gender income gap is smaller than it was in the 1980s and 1990s, the Conference Board of Canada awarded Canada a C grade for its efforts to close the gap throughout the 2000s.

There is no easy fix to the problem of unequal pay. Immigration status and age influence the wage gap, and racialized minorities, Indigenous peoples, and disabled people are more likely than others to earn low wages. For this reason, it is important to go beyond the RCSW’s exclusive and too narrow focus on gender in order to appreciate how other social relations and processes of marginalization influence wage and employment norms. The contemporary challenge is not only to come up with an inclusive strategy and popular campaign to achieve real pay equity for the majority of workers in Canada, but also to revitalize the feminist movement.

Judy Fudge is Professor and Lansdowne Chair in Law at the University of Victoria. She was a member of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women’s Economy and Employment Committee in the 1990s.


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