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Equal pay for equal work still eludes us

Thursday, March 8, 2018

In theory, women in this country enjoy the same legal rights as men when it comes to employment. In practice, that is not the case.

While significant strides have been made over the years and women are represented at all levels in the labour force, including in senior executive positions and in board rooms, there are still major disparities.

On the one hand, data from the Central Statistical Office (CSO) shows that the share of women in the labour force has been steadily increasing since the 1980s. This is not surprising given the fact that at all educational levels, T&T’s women are keeping pace with, or surpassing, their male counterparts.

However, although this country has already had the distinction of electing a woman to the highest political office—Kamla Persad-Bissessar, from 2010 to 2015—and another will soon be installed in the highest office in the land—Paula Mae Weekes will be sworn in as President on March 19—gender pay equality has not been achieved. Neither the ruling People’s National Movement, nor Persad-Bissessar’s United National Congress have it on their political agendas.

Had it been anywhere on the horizon, Mrs Sharon Rowley, wife of Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley, had the opportunity to speak about it when she launched International Women’s Week at UWI on Monday.

However, she did mention her husband’s commitment to equality of the sexes, which he now should take the opportunity to demonstrate by introducing policies and legislation to level the gender playing field.

Political will is needed for elimination of T&T’s gender pay gap once and for all. At present there are no laws or regulations requiring equal pay for equal work. While equal pay for men and women is the rule rather than the exception in the public sector, there are still significant disparities in pay between men and women in the private sector.

As of 2016—the most recent period for which data can be found—T&T ranked 91st in the world out of 114 countries in wage equality. On average, women earn US$$22,656 a year, while men earn US$41,527 for the same period.

The gender wage gap is largest on the lower end of the income scale where it is estimated to be at 25.9 per cent and women in the 35-44 age group face the highest levels of discrimination.

Some legal protection exists for the country’s working women, but not enough. Apart from United Nations Conventions ratified by this country such as International Labour Organisation (ILO) Conventions and the Tripartite Consultation (International Labour Standards) Convention, 1976 (No. 144), there is the Industrial Relations Act (1972), the Retrenchment and Severance Payments Act (1985), the Minimum Wage Act (1976), and most recently, the Equal Opportunity Act (2000).

Add to those disparities the reality of T&T’s working women are also primary care-givers, carrying the bulk of the responsibility for raising children, performing housework, taking care of the sick, the ageing and elderly, and other social functions, and it is clear that this country still has a long way off from gender parity.

This reality should weigh heavily on all of us, particularly today, as T&T joins the rest of the world in observing International Women’s Day.

Could it be that this nation is still saddled with a strong patriarchal network holding fast to historical and cultural attitudes and practices that do not place sufficient value on women’s work? If so, the country is not fully benefitting from all that women can bring to the table, such as multitasking, teamwork, a nurturing mindset.

The time is now therefore for the Rowley administration, with support from the Opposition and none of the usual political grand standing, to ensure passage of legislation that ensures equal pay for equal work across all economic sector and in all income levels.

In other jurisdictions there are such laws.

In the United States, for example, the Equal Pay Act requires that jobs be substantially equal. It covers all forms of pay, including overtime, bonuses, profit sharing and allowances. In short, it is it illegal to discriminate based on sex in pay and benefits.

Iceland, widely regarded as the world’s most gender-equal country, requites all public and private entities employing more than 25 people to pay equal wages for work of equal value or face daily fines.

However, while the passage of more progressive laws will move things forward, the onus cannot be only on T&T’s legislators to ensure pay equality. Businesses must also commit to fair hiring and promotions practices, focusing on accountability and results.

Men and women will enjoy the resulting measurable economic benefits. Consider, for example, how pay equality can create a larger tax base; eliminate growing concerns about the sustainability of the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) as the size of the pool of contributors will increase, and boost household savings rates.

For the private sector, closing the gender pay gap could boost profitability. Companies that promote gender diversity enjoy better financial results than their competitors and enjoy improved performances all round including within their senior leadership teams.

Trade union, too, can help make a difference by lobby harder for pay equality in their collective agreements. They also need to be more outspoken on the various forms of discrimination that still exists in the workplace.

International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate the progress we have made, as well as identify challenges and shortcomings and how they can be overcome.

By this time next year, T&T gender pay gap should be substantially reduced, or completely eradicated.


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