The ILO and Equal Pay (Chapter 2 of my History Honours dissertation)

The ILO and Equal Pay

The 1950s began with a significant international development with regard to equal pay. In 1951, the ILO passed Convention 100 which called for equal remuneration for men and women for work of equal value.[1] The ILO, founded in 1919, had for many years had in its constitution the principle of equal pay for work of equal value.[2] This principle was first debated and agreed at the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations at the end of the First World War.[3] At the 33rd session of the ILO in 1951, the decision was made to put this principle into a formal Convention. The Convention said that there should be equal remuneration for men and women workers for work of equal value.[4] The motives of the ILO members in taking this action were concerns that so long as women were paid sub-standard wages when they did comparable work with men, standard rates for the job would be in peril and the standard of living of workers in jeopardy.[5] The significance of this move was that, rather than just being a principle or recommendation, by specifying this in a convention it became part of UN international law and legally binding on member states.

This was viewed as a significant step by the members of the New Zealand campaign. Bill Sutch, a keen supporter of the equal pay cause in New Zealand, claimed that the ILO traditionally did not promote or advocate advanced labour or social legislation. Instead it tended to crystallise what was already there.[6] It was significant then that the ILO passed this convention at a time when a great number of countries had no legislation regarding equal pay and in many countries there was active discrimination against female workers. The ILO Convention calling for equal pay for work of equal value gives a broader definition than simple rate for the job arguments. The union campaigns under review here called for a rate for the job and opposed pay structures that built in lower pay for women.  In passing Convention 100, the ILO was considered to have adopted the highest common denominator of member nations regarding equal pay.[7] Whereas in New Zealand, Australia and the Britain, equal rates for the job had still not been realised, in other nations such as Holland, Canada, Indonesia and France the discussion about equal value had already begun.

Governments in New Zealand, Australia and Britain did not support the ILO convention. In 1951, the Menzies Federal Liberal Government claimed to support the principle of the ILO equal pay convention[8] However, the Australian government did not ratify this convention on the grounds that wage setting was a matter for adjudication by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.[9] The Westralian Worker reported that there was the possibility of arriving at a comparison of men and women’s work when the jobs were identical.[10] Like Australia, New Zealand refused to ratify this convention for similar reasons.

Linda Hill cites the 1951 ILO convention as the point when women public servants really began campaigning for equal pay in New Zealand.[11] In May 1955, Margaret Long (nee Brand), who was a key activist in the New Zealand equal pay campaign, wrote in the PSA journal about the ILO Convention. In this article, Brand claimed the ILO did not put its main emphasis on social justice, rather it promotes equal pay as economically desirable.[12]  Long then reviewed developments in the UK and the USA. She contrasted these countries with Australia and New Zealand where minimum wage rates were fixed on a family requirement rather than on job content, meaning equal pay did not fit so easily with the economic framework as it then existed.[13] Those who were becoming active in the New Zealand campaign were talking increasingly about the ILO.  Also, according to Long, internationally the public sector should be the first place to push for equal pay, believing the state would then set the standard for the rest of the labour market.[14] For the purposes of domestic litigation, in the Arbitration Courts and Public Service Appeal Boards, the ILO Convention provided moral rather than legal weight. The Convention also signalled that members states should be implementing equal pay legislation, and that women should be able to use the legal system as a way of obtaining equal pay with men.

As in the UK, Australia and New Zealand, the position of the Canadian Government was to abstain on ILO convention 100.[15] In Canada however, the ILO convention had an immediate political impact. The province of Ontario passed equal pay legislation in 1951.[16]  Following on from this, in 1956 the Canadian government passed legislation requiring that in all provincial jurisdictions women were to be paid the same as men for equal or substantially similar work. [17] This legislation was for equal pay for women in the same or substantially similar work.[18] Some women employed in the Canadian Federal Civil Service already had equal pay status with men.[19] This change would extend equal pay to an estimated 73,000 more women in the Canadian service.[20]

The development in Canada of equal pay legislation was more immediate than in the three countries being examined. However, in all cases the ILO decision helped equal pay campaigns gain attention and momentum. In the case of Britain, this development coincided with other events which were to bring the equal pay campaign to the fore.

[1] Margaret Corner No Easy Victory: Towards equal pay for women in the Government Service 1890 – 1960 New Zealand Public Service Association Dan Long Trust, Wellington 1988 36

[2] Social Service Review  Equal-Pay Convention Adopted by ILO Vol 25, No 4 December 1951 528 Accessed on The University of Chicago Press Journals July 7 2016

[3] Lindsay Niemann Equality in the Workplace: Wage Discrimination and Women Workers: The move towards equal pay for work of equal value in Canada Published by Women’s Bureau Labour Canada. 1984 5

[4] Hill 15

[5] Brigid Stafford International Labour Convention on Equal Pay The Irish Monthly Vol 79. Number 938 August 1951 363

[6] WB Sutch Women with a cause New Zealand University Press Wellington 1973 182

[7] WB Sutch Women with a cause New Zealand University Press Wellington 1973 182

[8] Greg Patmore Australian Labour History Longman Cheshire Sydney 1991 177

[9] Patmore 177

[10] Westralian Worker ILO to discuss equal pay July 21 1950 4

[11] Hill 15

[12] Brand ILO and Equal Pay PSA Journal Volume 42, Number 5 May 1955 3

[13] Brand ILO and Equal Pay PSA Journal Volume 42, Number 5 May 1955 3

[14] Margaret Long and Cath Kelly, interviewed by Trevor Richards, interview for the special PSA Journal liftout, 1986

[15] Niemann 17

[16] Morley Gunderson The Evolution and Mechanics of Pay Equity in Ontario University of Toronto Press 2002

[17] Kenneth A Kovach and Peter E Millspaugh Comparable Worth: Canada Legislations Pay Equity The Executive Volume 4 Number 2 May 1990 95

[18] Kenneth A Kovach and Peter E Millspaugh Comparable Worth: Canada Legislations Pay Equity The Executive Volume 4 Number 2 May 1990 95

[19] The Dominion Equal Pay for Women in Canada NZ Press Association 12 June 1956

[20] The Dominion Equal Pay for Women in Canada NZ Press Association 12 June 1956

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