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Conservatives move Canada back another notch

Stephen Harper the Incrementalist has, once again, sneaked a controversial measure into a federal budget document that will make Canada fundamentally more conservative. He's reforming pay equity rules. This has a lot of decent-minded people in a flap. Loo

Stephen Harper the Incrementalist has, once again, sneaked a controversial measure into a federal budget document that will make Canada fundamentally more conservative.

He’s reforming pay equity rules.

This has a lot of decent-minded people in a flap.

Looked at from the broadest perspective, the fight for pay equity is about erasing discrimination in the workplace. It’s about compensating women properly for the jobs they are doing.

Who, in public life, can argue against that? In 21st-century Canada, you can’t.

Unfortunately, this fight is more nuanced than that.

Prepare yourself É this is going to get chunky.

The issue is no longer about ensuring a woman working as a finance policy analyst is being paid the same as her male counterpart.

That’s a no-brainer, child’s play.

Pay equity is much trickier.

This fight is about making sure a woman working as secretary-receptionist is making the same as a guy working as a collection agent.

The jobs’ responsibilities are similar. But, in many cases, the male-dominated, collection-agent field makes more money.

Is that wage gap due to the fact that men are more likely to be collection agents and women secretary-receptionists?

Should the guy doing a vaguely similar task

- customer service, listening and dealing with angry clients - that carries a cooler title make more coin? Is that fair?

And how do you assess whether the job title carrying the higher wage is merely semantics? That’s not easy.

Now, try to map the inequity across the entire federal civil service, Crown corporations and federally regulated industries, like airlines and utilities.

It’s enough to make you dizzy.

Society has finally figured out women are fully as capable as men, and entitled to the same wages. That battle is won.

Now we’re talking about rooting out deep-seated, societal discrimination brought about by a market that deemed women’s work less valuable than men’s.

There are hundreds of cases of wage discrimination cases before human rights tribunals across the country. Lawyers for the government and the unions have been fighting these cases for more than 25 years.

So there’s a problem. No national leader disputes this.

They all want it fixed, largely because the current system of acrimonious and expensive fight in the tribunals isn’t working well for anyone.

The current Canadian model to address this is to simply require employers to implement pay equity.

A point system is used, with the employer evaluating jobs in terms of skill, effort, responsibility and working conditions. The wages of jobs that hold similar ranking in these areas are compared and, if a discrepancy exists, the wages are adjusted.

Harper and his supporters are philosophically opposed to this system.

It “is antithetical to the basic principles of a market economy, according to which supply and demand determine wages,” wrote Tom Flanagan, Harper’s friend and former campaign manager, in an Op-Ed published in the Globe and Mail.

The Conservatives simply want jobs posted and bid on. If women-dominated fields earn less É well, that’s what the market decided.

Of course, this free-market system created the problem in the first place - as women entered the workplace, the market deemed the work they did as significantly less valuable than the work of men.

Nevertheless, this is the model Harper is using to fix the pay equity issue.

So, thanks to legislation tied to the stimulus package, pay equity will no longer be a human right. It will be a negotiated pay issue.

Women may not receive equitable pay for the work they do, but at least they will know it.

“Our approach will ensure employers and unions take pay equity into consideration every time they negotiate,” wrote Vic Toews, in a widely circulated letter (see page 8). “It will be transparent.”

And, if after the negotiating is done, it’s not fair there will be no avenue of appeal until the next bargaining session.

Workers will no longer be able to take a wage grievance to a human rights commission. And a union or manager who championed an employee’s cause could be fined.

“It is time for employers and unions to be jointly accountable for setting fair wages, for reporting publicly to employees and for sticking to the commitments they make at the bargaining table.”

Which suggests this is more about gelding unions than settling pay equity problems.

Unions will now be prohibited from championing a member’s pay equity complaint.

It is a dubious method of dealing with the pay equity problem, and it’s been tethered to the much-needed stimulus budget.

That is, it’s a poison pill. You can’t kill the pay equity legislation without nixing the stimulus package.

By eroding women’s rights and the power of Canada’s unions, it plays well among the worst elements in Harper’s Reform base, softening their criticism in the face of a deficit budget.

It also makes Canada less progressive, takes it another step towards Bush-era America.

The majority of politicians in the left-dominated Parliament don’t support it. But, because it would kill the stimulus package, there’s nothing they can do to stop it.

You have to give Harper credit - he’s insidious, but clever. (Richard Mostyn)