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Russell Wangersky: Disclosure will lead to equal pay

Wage parity
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Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

Monday, the government of Iceland brought in a new kind of equal pay legislation: companies with more than 25 employees will have to proactively show that they pay women and men the same amounts for the same jobs.

Plenty of governments have brought in various types of equal pay legislation, but the pay gap between men and women has continued anyway, simply because, under most legislation, no one actually has to prove they are paying men and women fairly.

That’s how Iceland’s different. Instead of someone having to prove that their employer is unfair — a David and Goliath battle at the best of times — employers instead have to prove that they are not systematically unfair. It’s no different than having to pay at least the minimum wage.

It’s a change that’s overdue in this country, too. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms requires that men and women in this country doing the same work be paid the same — problem is, unless you know what everyone in your company is making, it’s hard to know if anyone’s breaking the rules.

Proactive disclosure would change that — and perhaps change, at least a little, the fact that, as of last March, Statistics Canada figures showed that women made 87 cents an hour for every dollar an hour than men made in 2015. In annual wages in the same year, women made 74 cents for every dollar made by men.

Sunshine would serve as a wonderful disinfectant, especially because any business that differentiates between men and women is breaking the charter anyway — proactive legislation would only serve to catch those who already break the rules.

That sort of legislation is bound to be publicly popular: how do you argue against being required to prove that you pay everyone fairly? (And don’t start with the “more red tape” argument. Just don’t.)

But the fact is that it would be opposed, especially by companies that have the most to lose. They’ll make their opposition well known to politicians — it’s just unlikely to be opposition that the general public will see.

That’s where I’d make things a little different: often, we don’t know who is putting pressure on governments or why. For example, there’s been considerable pressure from companies in Ontario over the minimum wage hike this week in that province to $14. Some of that opposition has been public — quite a lot more, you can be assured, has been private, behind-closed-doors soft lobbying by businesses and business owners complaining about the effect on their bottom lines of having to pay employees a living wage.

It’s all about access: business owners often have a more direct pipeline than employees working their way through a regular work week.

So, as part of equal pay legislation, let’s have a corollary piece of legislation: before the debate even begins, let’s ask governments to require, by law, that politicians have to make public disclosure of the names and arguments of anyone who contacts them opposing the move.

Disclose any contact in any form. At any time — at a dinner party, in a letter to your constituency office, in meeting on other topics where the issue just happens to come up.

If it’s truly a public issue — and equal pay is absolutely a public issue of the first order — let’s keep it all public and above board.

If your argument is that you have to pay people less because they happen to be women, then you should have to explain your reasons. And not behind closed doors.

Given that women are a huge part of any business’s customer base, let’s see how the naysayers then fare in the public marketplace.

Real equal pay might come faster than anyone expects.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at rwanger@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

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