Saturday, March 07, 2009

Don't Toews me, bro

Harper old-timer and current President of the Treasury Board Vic Toews has a piece in today's Ottawa Citizen on the subject of pay equity, about to be gutted in the Conservatives' omnibus budget bill.

Conservatives, he said, respect the principle of equal pay for work of equal value. (Take that, base!) Except that he prefers foghorns on this occasion to dog-whistles. Once the bill passes, that respected principle is dead, and his folks know it.

Pay equity, rather than being enshrined as a right, will now be subject to negotiation. And guess what? Both parties at the table will be held responsible for achieving pay equity--and subject to heavy fines if they fail to do so.

This places the federal public service unions in a completely untenable position, which, come to think of it, is just what any righteous Conservative employer dreams of doing. In outline, here's what the labour side is up against:

1) It must negotiate a right. Pay equity will become just another tabled bargaining demand.
2) If the employer takes a hard-nosed stance, the unions may not be able to achieve pay equity.
3) It is then subject to fines.
4) An employee may go straight to the Public Service Labour Relations Board to complain.
5) Her union will be forbidden by law to assist her (see [3]).
6) The legal duty of a union to provide fair representation for a member cannot, in this respect, be discharged (see [3]).

Toews witters on about the length of time it takes to resolve complaints under the current system, and he's absolutely right: successive governments' intransigeance on the issue have ensured that complaints before the Canadian Human Rights Commission have proceeded at a glacial pace.

The preference is obviously for a faster system: legislation that obliges the employer to review its pay practices, identify equity gaps and develop a remedy. In 2004 a joint Pay Equity Task Force recommended just such a law, with a commission and a tribunal to enforce it. There is nothing new here: similar pro-active legislation already exists in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

But the Harper government has declined to implement the recommendations. Better to hit both the equity principle and the unions with one legislative blow.

Here is how the new law will work against women:

  • The new legislation doesn't even mention "pay equity," but introduces the term "equitable compensation," whose meaning in law is uncertain. This is no accident.
  • It adds "market forces" to the equation--the very forces that helped to create pay inequity in the first place.

  • Rather than permitting the comparison of jobs within the entire public service, the new law will restrict job comparisons to specific job classes* and "job groups," the latter to be defined by regulation. The government can, by regulation once again, restrict the comparator jobs upon which compensation assessment can be based (s.4[5] d). In other words--it's a fixed race.

  • A "female predominant" group will now have to be comprised of at least 70% women. Under the current rules, there are ten "female predominant" groups in the Public Service Alliance of Canada, the largest federal public sector union. This would cut that number down to five at a stroke. Of the 2,963 information services workers, for example, 2039 are women--68.8% of the group. With the passage of this law, they would have no right to claim pay equity.

  • Prior to collective bargaining, the employer will only be required to provide the unions with information about the gender composition of job groups. This is hobbling the unions, who need complete job information on male and female dominated groups to make a case.

  • As if all this weren't bad enough, the legislation also permits delays in implementing pay equity, assuming all of the hurdles outlined above are somehow surmounted.

  • As noted, employees are legally on their own in pursuing a complaint to the Public Service Labour Relations Board, and facing down a phalanx of government lawyers. Few employees, of course, have the means to undertake such a struggle.
The problems with the legislation--its dire consequences for women--are obvious. Female workers are being deprived of a fundamental human right guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: namely, equality. The bill is now currently working its way through Parliament. The NDP and the Bloc have been vocal in their opposition to this piece of throwback legislation. No word so far, though, from former human rights advocate Michael Ignatieff.

*A "job class" is defined in the legislation as "two or more positions in the same job group that have similar duties and responsibilities, require similar qualifications, are part of the same compensation plan and are within the same range of salary rates."


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