Home Workplace Legislation/Press Releases BC pay transparency law lands with a thud

BC pay transparency law lands with a thud

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. 

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.” 

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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