Government gives cold shoulder to private member’s bill aimed at tackling gender pay gap

By Shannon Waters March 18, 2019

The opposition MLA behind a private member’s bill that would force businesses in B.C. to disclose pay gaps between male and female employees is hoping Premier John Horgan and his government will reconsider its standoffish approach to the legislation.

On March 6, Liberal MLA Stephanie Cadieux (Surrey South) introduced M203, Equal Pay Reporting Act, which would require any business with more than 50 employees in B.C. to annually publish the difference in pay and bonuses that their male and female employees receive. The bill would also create a Registrar of Equal Pay Reporting to keep tabs on companies’ compliance.

However, Horgan — who said he and his government are committed to pay equity — was non-committal when asked whether his government would consider supporting the bill or introducing similar legislation of its own.

He also raised the possibility that Cadieux introduced the bill as “a political stunt.”

“[The B.C. Liberals] had 16 years to bring in government legislation … to make the changes that Ms. Cadieux brought forward,” he told reporters. “We will take a look at it.”

“I want to have a conversation,” Cadieux told BC Today about the bill’s intent. “I don’t think this is intentional — I don’t think people are setting out to pay women less, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.”

Gender-based pay discrimination is illegal in Canada under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Human Rights Act and in B.C. under the Equal Pay Act.

But, in 2017, the average Canadian woman earned just $0.87 for every dollar made by a man, according to Statistics Canada. A B.C. Federation of Labour report estimated the median hourly wage for women in B.C. was $4.45 lower than it is for men.

Canada’s gender pay gap has been reduced by more than 20 per cent since 1981, but almost all of that progress was made before 2011. And while some of the gap can be explained by the fact that female-dominated occupations receive lower wages, Statistics Canada concluded last year that “the gender pay gap owes largely to wage inequality between women and men within occupations.”

Cadieux, a former cabinet minister, hopes increasing transparency around pay discrepancies between men and women working for the same companies will kickstart the pay equity conversation.

“More women go into low paying jobs than high paying jobs … by virtue of the fact that society has determined that we should pay early childhood educators less than we should pay heavy equipment operators,” she said.” Even if we acknowledge that, we still have an unexplained gap of eight per cent so what is going on? And in what places and where and how do we fix it?”

This is not Cadieux’s first kick at the pay equity can. In 2018, she introduced private member’s bill M203, Equal Pay Certification Act, based on Iceland’s approach to legislated pay equity. As with most private member’s bills, M203 died on the order paper months after receiving first reading.

This year’s bill is “less onerous” in terms of its requirements for both companies and the provincial government, according to Cadieux.

While acknowledging that private member’s bills “never see the light of day,” Cadieux remains hopeful that the current government will take some kind of action to address pay equity in the province.

“I don’t expect them to actually pass mine,” she said. “I understand how this works, but I do wish they would put forward something. I’ve now given them two ways to go at it and there are probably others, and I would be supportive of going after the issue in one of these ways.”

A partisan roadblock?
Premier Horgan’s criticism of the previous Liberal government’s inaction on women’s issues is not without merit.

Shortly after coming to power in 2001, the Liberals significantly cut funding for domestic violence support services — an action roundly condemned by women’s rights advocates.

“The Liberals have been on a course of policy decisions and cuts that had a very negative impact on women of this province,” Shelagh Day, co-founder of the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund, told The Globe and Mail. The Liberal government’s policies between 2002 and 2009 were “devastating” for B.C. women, according to Day.

Cadieux said women’s rights have been her “passion forever” but said the demands of her time as a cabinet minister precluded her from focussing on pay equity legislation.

“When you are the minister of a highly charged portfolio for a number of years, you focus entirely on that,” said Cadieux, who spent more than four years as Minister of Children and Family Development.

By contrast, the NPD government has actively promoted itself as supportive of women’s issues and has taken action on several commitments in that arena.

Premier Horgan has touted his gender balanced cabinet — the first in B.C.’s history — on multiple occasions and went so far as to create the province’s first parliamentary secretary on gender equity within the Ministry of Finance, a role filled by NDP MLA Mitzi Dean (Esquimalt—Metchosin).

Given its professed support for gender equity, Cadieux doesn’t think it would be “a leap” for the government to take action on disparities in the way men and women are paid for their labour.

“I understand there is lots on every government’s plate and that there is a hesitancy to say, ‘We’ll do it’ and then not be able to do to it,” she told BC Today. “This is a relatively simple bill … and I do not think it would take a ton of work.”

Dean was unavailable for an interview last week according to her staff, who cited “various events” in her Victoria-area constituency.

In a written response to BC Today, Dean acknowledged the importance of ensuring all workers receive fair pay.

“This conversation is about more than pay equity — it’s about the pay gap, and that women, on average, earn less than men throughout their career,” Dean said in the statement. “There are different barriers that lead to the pay gap, and removing these barriers is critically important.”

The parliamentary secretary highlighted the government’s actions to support B.C. women, including its $1.3 billion investment to create a universal child care system and plan to raise the province’s minimum wage to $15.20 by 2021 — a move likely benefit women, who are more likely to work part-time and in lower-paying industries.

“We’re also investing in training programs and scholarships for women in STEM and the trades, to ensure they have better access to these stable, well-paid jobs,” Dean added.

Despite being provided with a copy of Cadieux’s draft of the bill, which is still with the Queen’s Printer and has yet to be publicly posted, the parliamentary secretary’s response made no mention of the legislation.

Cadieux remains optimistic that the government will take some kind of action on what she describes as “a pretty mainstream issue.”

“We have to try something concrete if we really want to see this change,” she said. “The question is whether or not [the NDP government] chooses to act or not. And if they don’t for political reasons, that is too bad.”