By Zak Vescera, The Tyee
British Columbia says it wants to force employers to pay people of all genders the same money for the same work — just not yet.
Last week, the B.C. government introduced legislation that will eventually require employers to share publicly how much they pay employees of different genders.
Politicians framed the bill as a step towards fairness in a province where men earned roughly 20 per cent more per hour of work in 2021, one of the largest gender wage gaps in Canada.
But critics argue the bill doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t compel employers to close those gaps, unlike laws other provinces and the federal governments already have on the books.
Others question whether Bill 13, the Pay Transparency Act, would actually improve transparency about why women make so much less than men in B.C. or give the government power to close the gap.
“We don’t have the tools to do this now, and this legislation doesn’t give us those tools,” BC Human Rights Commissioner Kasari Govender said.
MLA Kelli Paddon, the parliamentary secretary for gender equity, said the government is committed to eventually introducing pay equity legislation that requires employers to pay the same amount for the same kind of work, even if there’s no timeline for it yet.
“We have to get this right,” Paddon said.
But critics say the transparency bill represents a missed opportunity.
“There’s nothing there to compel employers to pay equal pay for work of equal value,” said feminist economist Marjorie Griffin Cohen.
Behind BC’s pay gap
British Columbia has one of the biggest divides between pay for men and women in Canada.
In 2018, a Statistics Canada study found women earned 18.9 per cent less in hourly wages than men, a gap of about $5.60 an hour. The average gap narrowed to just 15 per cent by 2022 but remains wider in some sectors. In utilities and manufacturing, for example, men’s hourly earnings in 2022 were 26 per cent higher.
Marie Drolet says understanding why is complicated. Drolet, a senior research economist with Statistics Canada, has studied the gender wage gap in Canada for more than two decades.
Drolet says part of the divide is that women tend to earn less money than men while working at the same company, which could point to unequal treatment and barriers to promotion.
But women are also more likely to be “segregated,” Drolet said, into lower-paying jobs in sectors like hospitality and the non-profit world, and less likely to work jobs in lucrative sectors like the skilled trades.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drolet said, the gender gap between men and women briefly narrowed in Canada. But it wasn’t because women were suddenly earning more. Thousands of predominately female workers in low-wage sectors like hospitality had been laid off, which had the effect of raising the overall average wage for women.
Last week, more than 120 academics, labour leaders and organizations signed a letter urging B.C.’s government to adopt pay equity legislation. Such a bill would require employers to pay the same amount for comparable work to everyone regardless of their gender.
Instead, though, the province moved forward with pay transparency legislation, something it had announced the previous year.
“B.C. is doing something that’s almost nothing,” said Cohen, the former chair of the province’s Fair Wages Commission. Cohen says focusing on pay transparency won’t actually narrow the gap, especially since women are overrepresented in precarious jobs and part-time jobs that may not be easily reported under the legislation.
“Normally, when jurisdictions do this, they have pay equity already. And the transparency is a nice little thing on top of it,” Cohen said.
The argument for pay transparency legislation is that it gives employees stronger footing to negotiate a fair salary. B.C.’s bill, for example, requires employers to disclose salary bands for new positions and bans them from asking prospective employees about their previous wages. It also enshrines workers’ rights to talk about their salaries with co-workers, something Paddon said would have an immediate benefit for workers.
Punishment rules unclear
But it’s unclear whether employers will face any kind of punishment for breaking those rules, and who would enforce them.
The legislation doesn’t set out penalties for employers who violate the law. It also doesn’t designate a particular body, like the Employment Standards Branch, that might look into employers who break those rules.
Paddon said there would be “recourse” for employees in those situations, like a wrongful dismissal lawsuit if an employee is fired or a complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal. The bill also appoints a pay transparency officer who Paddon said would work to educate employers.
Sylvia Fuller, a professor of sociology at the University of British Columbia, noted the lack of enforcement provisions on the legislation.
Another argument for pay transparency legislation is it would help policymakers understand the gender wage gap in B.C.
But Govender says the bill is short on details there, too.
Bill 13 would gradually require every employer in the province to disclose the difference in pay based on gender, starting with the B.C. public service and Crown corporations. In 2024, it would also apply to companies that employ more than 1,000 employees, and then would gradually apply to all companies by 2027.
Those reports, Govender said, might show the pay gap within individual companies, but not industries and professions as a whole.
“Why pay transparency matters is because it allows us to understand what’s happening across sectors and systems,” Govender said. “This bill doesn’t allow for that kind of comparison. It doesn’t create a dataset that will allow for that kind of comparison.”
Annual reports from employers
Paddon pointed out the bill would require government to publish an annual report on the pay gap. She said that might eventually include information from employers’ reports. She cautioned she wanted to avoid putting an “administrative burden” on employers, especially small ones.
“We’ll be learning on what the best ways to share that information are during that phase because we also don’t want to institute something that is a really burdensome thing for employers, either,” Paddon said.
Fuller says the public reports could effectively shame some large employers into changing their ways.
When the United Kingdom required companies to report their pay gap, for example, it forced a reckoning at large employers like the BBC. Someone even created a bot on Twitter that reveals the pay gap at different employers when they tweet about International Women’s Day.
But like Cohen and Govender, Fuller says relying on public pressure alone isn’t enough.
“Publishing the pay gap I think is helpful and it can create attention and it can highlight where there are problems,” Fuller said. “But without further attention and further follow-up to ensure companies are actually doing something about it, it’s not as powerful.”
Paddon pledged that Bill 13 is not the end of the road. She said the province was closely watching the federal government’s pay equity legislation for workplaces it regulates to see what lessons it could learn.
“I can’t overstate enough the importance of the attitude shift that needs to happen,” Paddon said. “We have to be in a place where we’re all having the same conversation.”
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