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Make pay equity an election issue

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Author Linda McQuaig.

On International Women’s Day this year, Linda McQuaig -- 
journalist and best-selling co-author of The Trouble with Billionaires -- wondered how a hedge fund manager could earn 82,000 times as much as a nurse. Is he really working 82,000 times as hard, or contributing 82,000 times as much to society?

If the answer is “no”, pay equity is designed to even out the discrepancies. Simply put, pay equity reflects the right to equal pay for work of equal value.

Buy pay equity legislation is determined by federal and provincial governments, who are in turn affected by various groups with power and influence, the democratic will of the electorate and changing political priorities.

While provinces have made some progress, the Canadian government has consistently failed in achieving equal pay for Canadian citizens.

The income gap has narrowed since federal pay equity legislation was first introduced in the 1970s, but women continue to make substantially less than their male co-workers.

McQuaig addressed this discrepancy at the 24th Annual Equality Breakfast hosted by West Coast Legal Education and Action Fund for Women. She described how women’s salaries went from about 65 per cent of men’s income to 70 per cent after initial pay equity legislation was passed under the Trudeau Liberal-minority government. The problem, however, is that women’s incomes have tended to remain more or less at that level ever since, leveling out at about 79 per cent today. Shockingly, women of colour earn about 64 per cent of male wages, and Aboriginal women are stuck at 46 per cent of male wages.

Why? According to McQuaig, this doesn’t have to be the status quo.

“The economic doctrine that we hear all the time bandied about is that incomes are determined by the natural forces of the marketplace. There is nothing natural about the workings of the marketplace. In fact, the market place is governed by laws that are made by humans. You can change the laws and get very different income results. For instance, the hedge fund managers who are making such a killing on Wall Street are doing that under the banking laws that prevail today," McQuaig said. 

"Thirty years ago, we had very different banking laws and it wasn’t possible for the big players to make anywhere near as much. Similarly, corporate CEOs are making dramatically more today then they were back then. The reason is not that CEOs are more productive now; the reason is changes in laws governing executive stock options which have allowed their incomes to soar. In other words, incomes are determined by the particular laws that are in place at a particular time.”

Over time, social movements and their influence have fluctuated, resulting in changing social policy and legislation, McQuaig argued.

“Women have traditionally been a group with minimal power. That’s the reason that their pay has traditionally lagged behind that of men. But that began to change with the rise of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of political action on the part of women,” she said.

In 1972, Canada ratified the Convention on Equal Remuneration for Work of Equal Value and in 1977 a pay equity provision was added to the Canadian Human Rights Act.

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