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Pay Equity vs Equal Pay for Equal Work

Honourable senators, last Thursday during Question Period, Senator Mitchell admonished our Leader of the Government in the Senate. He said the following:

Honourable senators, today President Obama signed pay equity legislation — a breath of fresh air in North America. On the other hand, Prime Minister Harper, who was put on probation yesterday, wants to prohibit Canadian women from taking pay equity cases before the Human Rights Commission, arguing that they can use the collective bargaining process instead.

What good would the collective bargaining process be to the majority of underpaid, unequally paid women when they do not belong to unions and therefore do not have access to the collecting bargaining process?

When the leader provided him with an answer, he said:

Whoever wrote that answer for the honourable leader does not understand — and clearly the leader does not understand, either — that the example used to argue against my case underlines my very point.

The case Senator Mitchell was making, as honourable senators will have gathered, relates to pay equity. He cited the work of President Obama, in particular his signing last week of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. What is the difference? The difference is a subtle one for sure. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act has nothing to do with pay equity. It has to do with equal pay for equal work, and at that, only at a remove.

Pay equity is equal pay for equal work. For example, perhaps someone works as a manual labourer and another works in an office. Someone decides the value of their work is equal and they should receive the same amount of money.

However, that is not what the Lilly Ledbetter Act is about. It is about equal pay for equal work. In other words, a female supervisor may work among a group of male supervisors doing the same work, but the men get paid more. This is the situation that the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act addresses, though, as I said, only indirectly.

The act directly addresses the Supreme Court decision that ruled against Ms. Ledbetter in her suit against the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company. The court ruled in a 5-4 decision that Ms. Ledbetter had not filed her suit for equal pay for equal work in time, in other words, within 180 days of the first paycheque for which she was paid less than her peers. This new legislation restarts the clock every time the worker receives a paycheque.


Senator Mitchell's confusion is understandable, but before the honourable senator accuses anyone in this chamber of not understanding what he or she is saying, perhaps Senator Mitchell should first ensure that he understands what he is saying.