Justice

Underpaid women, undervalued jobs

Elizabeth Gray April 7 1980
Justice

Underpaid women, undervalued jobs

Elizabeth Gray April 7 1980

Underpaid women, undervalued jobs

Justice

Elizabeth Gray

Just as soon as she settles the details of incorporation, Leona Mollis will hang out a shingle in Amherst, Nova Scotia, announcing MARSH VIEW CERAMICS, a partnership with a friend which will establish her as an independent business woman. When she does she will take with her more than $1,000 in retroactive pay, marking the end of a nine-year career as a nurse in the federal penitentiary service. Mollis also will take some satisfaction in knowing that, thanks to her efforts, the service is not quite the same as it was when she entered it.

Mollis is the 37-year-old nurse who signed her name to a grievance to the Canadian Human Rights Commission claiming wage discrimination based on sex. Late in February, in what was hailed as a landmark equal pay settlement, she and five other nurses at Nova Scotia’s Springhill and Dorchester penitentiaries learned they had won their case. Henceforth female nurses will be paid on a par with the male hospital technicians with whom they work,

earning annual increases of about $1,300 each.

It is a step forward in the battle for women’s equal pay to be sure—but there’s a twist. The Mollis case is not the landmark it was hailed to be. What it upholds is the right to equal pay for equal work, a principle which has had at least token recognition in Canada since the ’50s. But the watershed victory the commission so badly wanted to give clout to its unique enabling legislation was not to be had at Springhill and Dorchester. Still unresolved is the much newer principle of equal pay for jobs which, though very different, are judged to be of equal value.

When Human Rights Commission investigators first descended on Springhill and Dorchester prisons to begin their assessments, they thought they had their test case. The women were highly trained and qualified nurses; the men were not. The women earned an average annual salary of $15,000; the men earned about $1,500 more. Yet the jobs actually performed by the men and women were precisely the same. “The only differences were that the nurses

were better qualified and the men were better paid,” reported the commission tersely.

So the victory for “equal value” remains to be won and the legal precedent remains to be set federally. As the agonizingly slow review process grinds on at the Human Rights Commission, employers in Canada’s private and public sector are perspiring just a little as they prepare to do battle. Defining the value of work has never been done anywhere in the industrialized world. If it happens in Canada first, which it may, it will create chaos in the entrenched job evaluation systems that have been around since the ’30s.

Female job ghettoes could cease to be the means by which employers can avoid paying equal money for equal work. Women secretaries, women clerks, women receptionists will no longer be paid less because their jobs are not the same as those of men machinists or truck drivers or maintenance men. They will be paid for the value of the work they do.

There are currently a dozen cases under review before the commission which could shatter conventions. There are, for example, thousands of librarians who are seeking to establish that their jobs, though different, are worth as much as historical researchers’. In the private sector, female janitorial staff in a B.C. company claim their work, though classified as “light,” is as valuable as “heavy” work done by the men. The case is at the bargaining table now and the commission is waiting for the collective agreement.

Determining equal pay for work of equal value will be a costly enterprise. The Mollis settlement, which applied to only six nurses in two penitentiaries, cost the federal treasury $10,000 in retroactive pay and $7,000 a year in salary increases. A better gauge of the cost involved comes from the Quebec Human Rights Commission which, along with the federal body, operates under the only legislation in the country empowered to assess value.

In a settlement that inexplicably seems to have passed unnoticed in the nation’s English-language press, the provincial commission in Quebec struck a blow for equal value in November, 1978. It convinced Quebec North Shore Pulp and Paper of Baie Comeau to pay its female typists and receptionists and IBM operators the same as its male wood measurers and draftsmen and inventory clerks. The total cost to North Shore Pulp and Paper was $25,914 in retroactive pay and more than $16,000 a year in salary increases. And at stake were only 24 women employees. Valcartier Industries Incorporated, outside Quebec City, swallowed a stronger dose of equal pay medicine when it agreed

with the provincial commission that $250,000 in annual increases were necessary to bring its 200 women workers up to the level of its male employees. If the equal value principle snowballs into federal precedent, these figures will multiply by hundreds of thousands of thousands. Already there are signs of alarm.

In Ontario, Labor Minister Robert Elgie recently appointed 11 new equal pay inspectors. But his announcement was seen less as a sign of progress than as a move to deflect criticism from his government’s opposition to an NDP private member’s bill that would have en-

shrined equal value in Ontario law. Women in the province can still only claim wage disparity if their jobs are the same as men’s.

That’s small consolation for Shirley Cooligan and her fellow steel-plate examiners at the British American Bank Note company in Ottawa. As women workers they earn less than porters and janitors and floor boys. They were turned away by the Ontario Human Rights Commission three years ago because their jobs were not the same as the men’s. Last month a tribunal ruled that the federal commission cannot act for them either, because the company does work outside federal jurisdiction. On hearing of the ruling, which is being appealed, commission officer Claude Bernier reacted angrily. “Let Mr. Elgie tell us what his 11 new investigators will do for those women,” she said. “The answer is that they can do nothing until he changes the law.” lt;£>