For every dollar men make, women earn an average of $0.71; yet in theory, equal pay for equal work remains a fundamental right. Indeed, the Canadian Human Rights Commission recently found the federal government guilty of discrimination against a group of nurses. For three decades, they were underpaid by Ottawa compared to a group of doctors composed essentially of men doing similar work. It is estimated that government will have to pay millions to these 430 Canadian women.
The decision in this case – before the courts since 2004 – is yet one more example of the prevalence of pay inequity. Statistics Canada found in 2003 that women working full-time earned a salary 29% less than their male counterparts. In that same year, women earned an average wage of $24,000, compared with $39,300 for men.
How is such injustice still possible? Part of the answer certainly lies in the inaction of the federal government. It may be surprising that unlike Quebec, there is no Federal Canadian pay equity legislation. Indeed, the only federal provision protecting the right to pay equity is the permission to file a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission under a section of the Canadian Human Rights Act. This system fails to serve justice because of long waits for action on complaints and the absence of an independent organization with developed special expertise on pay equity.
When I was Minister of Justice, a working group conducted an in-death study on pay equity and advocated returning importance to this right too often denied. Its main recommendations were to create a pay equity act, establish specific standards, and set up an independent expert adjudicator on pay equity. The Liberal Party had promised to implement these measures, but since their victory the Conservatives have refused to create a proactive statute for pay equity, preferring to talk about “raising awareness,” “mediation” and “monitoring” as have been done these last 30 years with limited results.
Not only is a pay equity act necessary to rectify this flagrant human rights injustice, it is also essential if we are to tackle poverty. According to Statistics Canada, 2.6 million women were considered low-income in 2004, compared with 2.2 million men. We have to improve the living conditions of women by improving the child tax benefit and providing assistance to vulnerable seniors. We must also improving access to essential services, such as affordable housing, public day care and mass transit.
Such an anti-poverty campaign would not only improve the socio-economic conditions of women, but also improve their safety. We have to acknowledge that violence keeps women in conditions of poverty, and that poverty – or fear of poverty – often keeps women trapped in violent situations.
The road to the concrete achievement of gender equality may still appear to be very long; however, we must remember that women’s rights are human rights, and there are no human rights that do not include the rights of women.