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OTTAWA — The federal Liberals have delayed the implementation of their 2018 push to bridge the gender pay gap, the Free Press has learned. The decision comes during a pandemic disproportionately pushing women out of the workforce.
"In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, resources and regulatory priorities have shifted to address the pressing needs of Canadians and Canadian businesses," Dustin Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for federal Labour Minister Filomena Tassi, wrote Thursday.
"The government will look to a potential coming-into-force date for the Pay Equity Act later in 2021."
Parliament passed that legislation in December 2018, which will require most federally regulated workplaces to collect data on the wage gap between male and female employees, and develop plans to fix those disparities.
Despite hiring an ombudsman 10 months ago to help workplaces abide by those rules, the Trudeau government says companies need more time to prepare for the law.
That troubles one local activist.
"It’s really important to have enforcement and implementation mechanisms in place; ways that we can actually measure progress," said Leah Wilson, the advocacy co-chair of Manitoba's chapter of the Institute for International Women’s Rights.
"Without having even the (passed legislation) in place, it partially falls onto the government that we see some of these drastic losses."
Statistics Canada says female workers aged 25 to 54 made just 87 cents for every dollar earned by men in 2018.
That year, the Liberals said in a press release their new legislation would "bring about a dramatic shift in how the right to pay equity is protected."
The law applies to federally regulated employers with at least 10 staff, such as railways, banks, radio stations and Crown corporations.
“When you're dealing with a crisis, you need to be taking even more substantive action to address inequity.” ‐ Leah Wilson, the advocacy co-chair of Manitoba's chapter of the Institute for International Women’s Rights
Those firms would have three years to analyze their gender breakdown by seniority and pay, and come up with plans to rectify gaps, which would be revised every five years. Larger firms would have to publicly report data, and form committees to oversee the plans.
As part of the legislation, the Canadian Human Rights Commission appointed a pay equity commissioner last September to help firms and Ottawa follow the law.
At the time, Service Canada said the legislation "is expected to come into force in 2020." On Thursday, Tassi’s office claimed the law remains "a key priority" but needs more time before implementation.
"To allow workplaces more time to participate in consultations and plan for the coming into force, the government is targeting late fall 2020/winter 2021 for the supporting regulations to be pre-published," wrote Fitzpatrick.
That starts a consultation period, after which the government will finalize and implement the regulations.
Bureaucrats warned of such a delay in April, telling Justice Minister David Lametti in an internal briefing note that the implementation could be "potentially delayed by COVID-19 closures."
Wilson said a pandemic is no time to put gender equality on the backburner.
"When you're dealing with a crisis, you need to be taking even more substantive action to address inequity," she said.
Manitoba has followed national trends in the monthly labour-force survey, which shows women are disproportionately losing both work hours and jobs.
Wilson said that’s largely because women are overrepresented in the "5 Cs" of caring, cashiering, catering, cleaning and clerical functions, all of which took a hit due to physical-distancing measures.
Now with workplaces reopening, ambiguity around child care and school returns has economists worried that Canadian women’s presence in the workforce will revert to rates last seen in the 1980s.
“What is the most worrisome is that we’ve seen a backsliding of human rights and gender equality.” ‐ Leah Wilson
"What is the most worrisome is that we’ve seen a backsliding of human rights and gender equality," Wilson said.
"It's quite alarming and I think it should be just ringing bells for our nation."
Ottawa’s consultation period and subsequent analysis will likely take months, with the legislation touching numerous departments and agencies.
The finance minister tabled the legislation as part of an omnibus budget bill; it has been promoted by both the status-of-women and inclusion ministers while the arm’s-length administering body, CHRC, reports to the justice minister. But implementing the bill falls to Tassi, the labour minister, who was not available Thursday afternoon for an interview.
Manitoba was the first province to implement proactive pay-equity legislation, in 1986. The law requires public-sector employers to ensure work "of equal or comparable value" is compensated without a difference along gender lines.
However the Manitoba law does not cover private workplaces, nor people employed by municipalities and arms-length commissions.
"Despite progress on the front for gender equality in Canada in other areas, this is something that we have to do some substantial work on," Wilson said.
"Without implementing the Pay Equity Act, we actually can’t say that those substantive measurements or enforcement mechanisms are in place."
Updated on Friday, August 7, 2020 at 9:35 AM CDT: Corrects typos
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