COMMENT: Don’t recreate the wheel — no reason why pay equity legislation hasn’t moved forward in NL.

I don’t know much about it, but if there’s one truth I’ve gleaned from my nine years of post-secondary education (engineering, public policy, and law if we care): if anyone does something sound complicated, it’s either they don’t understand much themselves, or they’re tricked into losing interest in you.

So, reading the comments about the long-awaited gender pay equity legislation for the province, I became endlessly curious to know what first it was: a general lack of basic understanding on the part of those politicians, or a goal to ward off the public interest?

Prince Edward Island recently announced that its pay transparency legislation will come into effect on June 1. While it’s not technically its pay equity legislation (as it came into effect, like many other provinces, like, oh, you know, 1988), it does a lot with what seems to be a bit and adds to the existing frame.

The legislation essentially mirrors that of other provinces: requiring companies to post salaries when publicly advertising jobs and prohibiting companies from asking potential job seekers for information about past salaries or salary expectations. It also prohibits employers from going after employees who ask for pay raises or engage in salary discussions. That’s it. It’s like a few extra lines of text in, what, the whole province’s Employment Standards Act.

What it does, however, is really interesting – it forces employers to publish wage information and reduces the ability of companies to exploit workers who can take less (statistically, women and other minority workers) for similar work that would normally pay more.

Like almost all policies intended to benefit equity groups, pay equity/pay transparency legislation actually benefits everyone (at least all workers), as most studies show that the secrecy salary is how you lose by getting the most out of your position. If companies are required to publish job salaries on postings, everyone is able to maintain a good understanding of their specific value to a company and have the data to demand more without penalty.

You might be thinking, “Damn, if we want to see how this turns out, we’ll have to wait a bit and see if it works.” Except we don’t need it — because we’re the fourth (potentially the third, at the rate BC is going) last province to pass such legislation. New PEI Policies are virtually the same as existing Ontario legislation.

For those of you who really care, I’m sure the thought of reading legislation is sleep-inducing (which is a healthy response). However, as someone who has read more statutes and statutes than the average person, I can promise you that it is largely the same. And why wouldn’t it be? An effective policy is often a proven policy. Transferable legislation facilitates interprovincial business.

MHAs talk about this ‘legislation’ like we’re playing a complex ops game and if we use the wrong word in line 2 under (b) the buzzer goes off and our chance for gender equity is over . But these are bananas and either a complete misunderstanding of their work or an attempt to distract us from the disturbing simplicity of these policies, especially with the legislation in place and well understood in almost every other province.


Pam Parsons, Minister Responsible for Women and Gender Equality.  - Photo File
Pam Parsons, Minister Responsible for Women and Gender Equality. – Photo File

Adjustments can be made

It’s far from me to say that the legislation that currently exists is perfect — but you can’t adjust what doesn’t exist. You’re doing everyone a favor by having no protection while we collectively work on optimizations.

Each law goes through several changes once in place – some several times a year – over decades of changes. Such is the cycle of life (and, of course, of politics).

To suggest that MPs in this province cannot even agree to add words encoding the right of workers to know how much money they could make on a job or protecting them with a process if they are taken advantage of is extremely concerning. (Almost as worrisome as the utterly serious comment from elected officials that “there are still wage gaps in provinces that have pay equity legislation”, somehow leaving aside , the fact that most provinces without pay equity legislation have the highest wage gap.

I think my naïveté shines through in my ability to remain impressed by those who constantly weave a fable about hoverboard manufacturing for somehow pulling back the curtain on (ta-da!) a reinvented wheel.

Still.


To suggest that MPs in this province cannot even agree to add words encoding the right of workers to know how much money they could make on a job or protecting them with a process if they are taken advantage of is extremely concerning.


I know that at a critical, even academic level, public policies must be adapted to the environment to which they apply. True evidence-based public policy takes fundamental principles proven in other jurisdictions and engages with local stakeholders, manages variables and modifies what is necessary to ensure that positive results are demonstrated when applied in the intended environment.

However, we’re not talking about something that falls within the jurisdiction — we just require people to be paid the same for the same work. We ask that this be put in writing so that those who find themselves in situations where this is not the case have the power to protect themselves, their colleagues, their families from this inequity. That there are mechanisms to make this fight possible.

The only way to accept that this is a “skills” issue is to suggest that women or other equity groups in Newfoundland and Labrador matter less than those in PEI. .-P.-E. or Ontario or, comparatively, if NL companies matter more than its people. It’s certainly not a complex issue — I don’t even know how the government has managed to call it divisive.


SaltWire network composite
SaltWire network composite

NL’s legacy

I will leave us with this reflection: from 1991, the government of T.-N.-L. fought tooth and nail against his people, taking a case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, to avoid paying his people (a subdivision of unionized women) equal pay, in violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms .

They asked the Supreme Court to declare that these women deserved to be paid unfairly by others in their fields. The NL government’s argument was that he just couldn’t afford them; the province would go bankrupt. The government has asked that these women in our province be denied a right under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court authorized it (years later the back pay was issued).

That was over 30 years ago. We have seen economic recessions since then, of course, but we have also had economic booms. We have not ceased to reward these women by ensuring that none quietly suffer the same fate as those who suffered it so publicly.

We have not stopped and checked in to provide continued protection for our neighbors during these times of well-being. Is this the story we want to leave of our province?

This question of “do we deserve basic pay equity and pay transparency legislation” is such a solid question for all of us. The only “them” who lose are the companies that profit from the wage gap and the silence on the public discussion of wages.

It is shameful that there is a narrative encouraged by “others” – those who simply ask for protection from oppression or abuse of power. It’s embarrassing that we’re dragging our feet not to protect each other. But the one thing I can say with confidence is that it’s not complicated: it just interferes, apparently, with other interests.

Which begs the question — whose interests are these elected officials more concerned with than the people of this province?

Lori Wareham is from Mount Pearl, NL. She has a university level background in gender public policy research and is interested in diversity and equity in labor law. She was recently called to the bar of Nova Scotia and is now beginning an article in Ottawa.

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