Shelagh Day: UN Human Rights Committee Blasts Canada on Gender Wage Gap

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Canada’s human rights performance was just reviewed by the United Nations Human Rights Committee. A number of Canadian NGOs made submissions and went to Geneva for the review, including the Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action, which is an alliance of more than sixty national, provincial and local women’s organizations.
In its Concluding Observations, the United Nations Committee took Canada to task for “persistent inequalities between women and men” and made a special point about Canada’s gender wage gap, which costs women about 23 cents on every dollar.[1] According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report of 2014, Canada’s wage equality ranks in 27th place behind the Philippines, Nigeria and Albania.[2] A study by Catalyst Canada shows that Canada’s gender wage gap is twice the global average.[3]

When Canada was questioned by Committee members during the review, the Canadian delegation demonstrated no concern about the gender pay gap. The delegation informed the Committee that if we subtracted from the calculation women’s family status, time out of the work force to look after children, and occupation, women would earn 91 cents for every male dollar. It was an astounding reply: if women were the same as men, they would be paid more. That’s the problem alright, but it’s not the answer.

Canada’s disinterest contrasts with the concern shown in another Conservative-led country, the United Kingdom, where Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced that his government will require firms with more than 250 employees to publish the average pay of male and female employees. Cameron hopes that this will pressure firms into boosting women’s wages, and that the pay gap will be eliminated in a generation. The Office of National Statistics reports the gender wage gap in the U.K. at 9.4%, less than half of Canada’s.

As a strategy, Cameron’s requirement on firms to publish their pay data, with nothing else, is not likely to be effective. Nonetheless, it is refreshing to a Canadian ear to hear a Prime Minister recognize that employment discrimination remains a regular, and unacceptable, feature of women’s lives.

The United Nations Human Rights Committee told Canada to “guarantee that men and women receive equal pay for work of equal value across its territory” whether they are working in the public or the private sector. Implementing this recommendation means a big change in Canada’s laws on women’s pay.

Equal pay for work of equal value – or pay equity – laws go beyond requiring that men and women receive the same pay when doing the same work. Pay equity laws permit comparisons between pay rates for work performed principally by women and pay rates for work performed principally by men.

Since the 1980s, Canada has had pay equity legislation that covers both the public and private sectors only in federal jurisdiction, Ontario and Quebec. Because in 2009, the Harper administration gutted pay equity protection for employees of the federal government, the federal public sector can no longer be counted as covered, although the federal private sector still is.

Manitoba, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island all have legislation mandating some pay equity measures for the public sector, but not for the private sector. Saskatchewan, Newfoundland, British Columbia, and Alberta have no pay equity legislation at all.
In a workforce like Canada’s, which remains highly sex-segregated, legislation requiring comparison between pay rates for traditionally female work and traditionally male work is an essential tool to address systemic gender-based wage discrimination. But it is not the only one. Pay equity laws need to be accompanied by other strategies, such as removing discriminatory barriers to better-paying jobs, promoting unionization of women, increasing the minimum wage, and providing affordable child care.

In 2015 it is time for Canada to have a national wage gap strategy that can deliver equality in pay to women. If we do not, at the rate we are going, women will wait another fifty years.

This column was first published in the Canadian Human Rights Reporter’s View Point, Issue 165. Shelagh Day is the President and Senior Editor of the Canadian Human Rights Reporter. 

[1] This is the 2011 Statistics Canada figure for Canada.
[2] Ricardo Husmann et al, The Global Gender Gap Report 2014 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, 2014), at 65, online:  <> 
[3] The Globe and Mail, “Gender pay gap in Canada more than twice global average, study shows” 5 May 2015,  online:
Designed by Rachel Gold.