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Pay equity: inside the poison pill of the 2009 budget

Conservatives using budget to ram through their ideological agenda, say opposition MPs

POISON PILL. Changes to pay equity were included in the budget for "purely political reasons," says Liberal MP Hedy Fry. "They've just taken that opportunity, when people are down, to kick them." Credit: Brent Creelman photo

Buried within the budget implementation act were provisions that will change the way that pay equity is dealt with in the federal public service. With the bill now passed by the Commons, those changes are almost certainly due to become law by spring.

“Our government respects the principle of equal pay for work of equal value,” Treasury Board President Vic Toews announced when the bill was introduced. “That is why we have taken action to update the lengthy, costly and adversarial complaint-based pay equity regime. It didn’t serve employees or employers well. In many cases women were waiting 15 years or more for a resolution to pay equity complaints after gruelling and divisive debates in court.”

This legislation — along with the decision to bury it in an omnibus bill that is ostensibly about fiscal stimulus — leaves many MPs and advocates unhappy.

“We believe that pay equity is a human right,” says Patty Ducharme, national executive vice-president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC). “It’s an equality right and as such you don’t negotiate it. You don’t negotiate provisions for sexual orientation, you don’t negotiate provisions for accommodation, you don’t negotiate provisions for racism, so why the hell would you negotiate provisions for women’s equality?”

Another provision that has Ducharme upset is that any union assisting in a pay equity challenge will be fined $50,000.

“The whole thing is bizarre,” says Liberal MP Maria Minna, chair of the party’s women’s caucus. “It seems to be totally counterintuitive to what they think they’re doing.”

“It is not proactive pay equity legislation,” she adds. “If they were to take the Quebec/Ontario model and put it in there, then they would have proactive pay equity legislation.”

The NDP Status of Women critic Irene Mathyssen concurs.

“All they need to do is to go back to the 2004 Task Force on Pay Equity Report,” she says. “It’s all laid out there, and it’s quite doable. I was in government in Ontario. They began the process in 1988. We continued it in 1990 to 95, putting in place the various categories so that it works effectively. We can do that here — we just need to have a government that believes in women, that believes in equal pay for work of equal value.”

Treasury Board, the government department that deals with public sector compensation, says that some of the changes, like raising the threshold for what is considered a female predominant workplace, were because of high mobility in smaller departments which changed them from male-predominant to female-predominant several times in a single year, and that the changes also brought them into line with some provincial pay equity systems.

As well, they added an additional condition of “market factors” to the “value of work” consideration.

“In order to be fair and set reasonable wages, the collective bargaining process must take into account conditions in the economy and the Canadian labour market,” says a Treasury Board spokesperson. “This is what all employers do in negotiating wages. Under the Public Sector Equitable Compensation Act, employers and bargaining agents must ensure that collective bargaining is conducted such that these market and economic conditions are taken into account in a discrimination-free manner.”

Treasury Board also confirms that there are currently two pay equity challenges before the Canadian Human Rights Commission. These changes would affect as many as 400,000 Canadians.

While all three opposition parties rose in the House to speak against the pay equity provisions in the bill, the Liberals ultimately gave the bill a pass.

“It was a poison pill, and it was put there for purely political reasons,” says Vancouver MP Hedy Fry. “Everyone feels that this government has shown its total ideological bent when it uses something that should be helping to create jobs, stimulating the economy, [putting] money in [people’s] pockets to spend to keep businesses afloat, keep that going. Instead, they’ve just taken that opportunity, when people are down, to kick them.”

“Having said that, if we’d have our druthers, there are all kinds of things that we would like to see. The point is, is this the time to throw out the baby with the bathwater?” Fry asks.

She says that they will be keeping an eye on the issue, but likens it to the Court Challenges Program.

“I don’t know how many people remembered that Brian Mulroney cancelled it — it was the first thing he did. What was the first thing the Liberal government did in 1993? Reinstate it. It just means we have to go back and do it again when we form government again.”