Balancing Budgets on the backs of women: Pay Equity Post-NAPE

Posted 2005-04-01 by Suzeanne Bouclin | Jurisfemme Publications – Volume 23, No. 3, Spring 2005

“It is unacceptable that governments are now authorized to balance their budgets on the backs of women”

On December 10th, 2004, International Human Rights Day, women’s organizations, labour unions and other community groups publicly expressed their disappointment and sense of betrayal following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in NAPE v. Newfoundland.

The Court in NAPE ruled that the government of Newfoundland and Labrador was justified in canceling pay adjustments that would have eliminated discrimination in the wages of women health care workers. The provincial government had signed a pay equity agreement in 1988 acknowledging historical discrimination against women working in the health care sector, yet, by 1991 the government had cancelled payments and imposed a three-year delay on the implementation of pay equity adjustments. Its justification: a reduction in federal transfer payments, an impending budget deficit, and a potential loss of credit rating within international financial markets. While the Court found that this amounted to discrimination against women, it determined that it was justifiable under section 1 of the Charter. That is, it accepted the province’s claim that it faced a “severe fiscal crisis” and decided that it was constitutionally permissible for it to override women’s human rights in the name of fiscal restraint. As Fiona Sampson, counsel for one of the intervenors, Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF), commented;

...[women’s groups are] pleased that the Court recognized the egregious sex discrimination caused by unequal wages, and rejected the Newfoundland government’s position that there was no discrimination. However, LEAF is extremely disturbed by the court’s ruling that this oppressive treatment of women was justifiable....

At its core, the NAPE decision reflects the broader societal reality that women are not worth as much as men: women’s salaries continue to be 72% of men’s, which in turn impacts their pensions and disability benefits and contributes to the increasing feminization of poverty. Women along varying axis of disadvantage face additional barriers: Aboriginal women, younger and older women, new Canadians, and women with disabilities are often segregated into the lowest paid and more precarious jobs. This is compounded by the fact that women make up the majority of single parents and continue to take on the lion’s share of unpaid child and elder care.

In response to the NAPE decision, NAWL, in collaboration with the Newfoundland Advisory Council on the Status of Women, the Feminist Alliance for International Action (FAFIA) and the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (CRIAW) initiated a pan-Canadian campaign urging the Federal and Provincial governments to show a concrete commitment to promoting women’s human rights. Over 100 groups throughout Québec and Canada endorsed letters to Prime Minister Paul Martin and Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Danny Williams decrying their governments’ contravention of Canada’s commitment to promoting women’s substantive equality. Specifically, we asked Prime Minister Martin:

… to demonstrate the commitment of the Government of Canada to women’s human rights, …. to show leadership on the issue of women’s entitlement to equality by assisting the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador to repay the $80 million debt to women health care workers … and to direct officials and lawyers acting for the Government of Canada not to endorse, support or promote the notion that women’s human rights can be ignored because of ‘fiscal crisis.’

In a concurrent letter to Premier Williams, NAWL and others urged him to uphold his commitment to women’s human rights in Newfoundland and Labrador as he expressed in the 2004 Speech from the Throne:

… to demonstrate this renewed commitment, we request today that you repay to women health care workers the $80 million that was discriminatorily deducted from their pay as a result of the Public Sector Wage Restraint Act.

The mobilization around the NAPE decision coincides with another NAWL initiative around pay equity: A call to Action for a new federal pay equity law. NAWL and other members of the Pay Equity Network are mobilizing to pressure the federal government to take immediate steps towards implementing the recommendations of the Pay Equity Task Force report (May 2004), namely: adopting a new, stand-alone pay equity law that will cover women, as well as workers of colour, Aboriginal workers and workers with disabilities. NAWL and partners are organizing a press conference on Parliament Hill and in other regions decrying the government’s lack of action on this issue. It remains to be seen however whether pay equity law reform will make it on the federal government’s agenda in the months ahead.

Suzeanne Bouclin is a lawyer and works part-time at NAWL as a Researcher and Communications Coordinator.