Federal Conservatives are poised to pass sweeping changes to national pay equity laws without forceful opposition from Liberal MPs.
The changes are tucked inside the government’s budget act with the caveat that any major changes to the legislation will force an election. The Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party have opposed the new laws, but the Liberals have decided to let it slide.
“It’s totally up to Harper,” said Yukon Member of Parliament Larry Bagnell. “Whether he’ll take it out we don’t know, we don’t have the ability to just extract things from budgets. If he says ‘No, it can’t be taken out or it goes to an election,’ no one wants to deny help for the people that are really in a crisis right now.”
“That’s a ridiculous choice he’s putting on Canadians,” said Bagnell.
The Liberals have condemned the proposed changes to the human rights law, he said, but as the bill slipped into third and final reading on Tuesday there didn’t seem to be any sign of the budget being blocked.
“The Conservatives slipped it in this bill that’s 400 pages long and the purpose of the bill is to deal with those hundreds of thousands of Canadians who can’t pay for their houses right now,” he said.
The pay-equity changes affect women in the federal government who work in female-dominated jobs. Pay equity stipulates that society undervalues work done by women and their pay is systemically lower than male-dominated jobs. Instead of a human rights court, this discrimination will soon be dealt with through collective bargaining and will ban any aid by unions.
“If it could just be extracted, I’m sure it would be possible,” said Bagnell. “It’s up to Harper if he’s going to leave it in.”
Pay equity is currently dealt with through human rights tribunals, a process that is acrimonious and that can last up to 25 years. There’s a broad consensus across the political spectrum that legislation has to change, but left-of-centre parties have been rooting for a proactive-based legislation as opposed to complaints-based to make it more effective.
Proactive pay-equity laws actively root out inequity, said Official Opposition Status of Women critic Maria Minna.
Ontario, Manitoba and Quebec all have strong proactive pay-equity laws that cover both the public and private sectors, she said.
“The current (national) legislation leaves it up to the employee and not the employer to re-evaluate the wages for female-dominated jobs,” said Minna.
Going after the employer takes away some of the venom that marked the lengthy human rights tribunal cases, she said.
The Liberals were already drafting legislation, before Paul Martin’s government lost power, that would have established new pay-equity laws, she said. It was drafted after a 2004 Task Force on Pay Equity found that many female-dominated jobs lack proper wages.
“There are still what we call pink ghettos over areas where organizations have a large number of women,” said Minna.
The taskforce found women make 70 cents on the dollar earned by men. Women do have more choice to pick jobs with higher wages than 20 years ago when the pay- equity laws were first drafted, said Minna, but the average woman entering the workforce still has fewer opportunities than a man.
“The reality is that women have to work and there are only so many jobs available,” she said. “Women tend to do work that men usually don’t do. They tend to do clerical work and work in the service sector.
“It’s a little bit like when Canada introduced minimum wage and everybody said it’s going to kill companies because it’s going to destroy the economy,” said Minna. “Well, companies didn’t shut down and wages did raise living standards in this country.”
“This is a similar thing – women are being left with jobs that pay less money,” she said.
The Yukon is blighted by pay inequity in the administrative sector of the federal government, said Alex Furlong, president of the Yukon Federation of Labour.
“There are more women going into high-level jobs and the boardroom, but that’s not what we’re talking about,” said Furlong. “Working women at the lower level of the spectrum are being discriminated against.”
“With the proposed legislation – which I have no doubt is going to pass – it’s what’s next on the horizon. It’s no secret that Canada is signed on to the international declaration on human rights.”
Could the changes ever be taken to court as a human rights violation?
“You can’t take anything to court unless the legislation is passed,” said Furlong. “I know that me and my colleagues will be looking very closely on whether to mount a legal challenge.”
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