My Speech on the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Gender Pay Gap Information) Bill 2017

There are numerous complex reasons why a gender pay gap exists, not only in Ireland but all over the world. Reasons include the fact that women are, in some cases, paid a lower hourly wage then men. Reasons also include the fact that a significant portion of women may not return to work or fulltime work once they have children.

The combination of women on average working fewer hours than men over their lifetime and the lower hourly wages for women results in lower pensions. This can result in more women than men experiencing poverty in old age.

Furthermore, Ireland currently ranks 25th out of 33 in the Women in Work World League Table – there is clearly room for improvement.

However, Ireland does rank above our European counterparts Spain, Italy and Greece.

Ireland has also seen positive change as the gender pay gap has decreased by 4% over the last 11 years to 14%.

Furthermore, female unemployment has decreased by 3,900 (-6.4%) to 58,000 over the year to Q1 2017.

Nevertheless, more must be done to continue to narrow the gap, and to do so at a quicker rate. Therefore, the bill is not opposed by the government. Although, there are a number of issues within the Bill which I will address shortly.

I as part of this government recognise the need for change and as a result the Programme for a Partnership Government includes a commitment to promote wage transparency by introducing wage surveys for companies of 50 or more employees.

Furthermore, the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020, which was launched in May this year, includes actions on the gender pay gap including:

  • Initiate dialogue between union and employer stakeholders to address the gender pay gap.
  • Develop and promote practical information resources to explain and increase understanding of the multifaceted aspects of the gender pay gap and its causes.
  • Develop practical tools to assist employers to calculate the gender pay gap within their organisations and to consider its aspects and causes, mindful of obligations regarding privacy and data protection.
  • Promote wage transparency by requiring companies of 50 or more employees to complete a wage survey periodically and report the results.

Therefore, the National Strategy for Women and Girls 2017-2020 does address the issue of the gender pay gap.

However, as argued by IMPACT (Ireland’s largest public and services trade union) publishing information with regards to the gender pay gap will incentivise employers to address the issue and to narrow the gap as they will be in public competition with other businesses and organisations which pay their employees more equally.

Furthermore, if such information is public knowledge it will allow people to negotiate better pay, in addition to allowing organisations and firms to engage with suppliers and businesses that practice equality with regards to gender pay.

Therefore, the proposed Bill does embody meaningful change, such as publishing the figures of large companies.

However, there are a number of pitfalls within the proposed legislation which must be addressed;

  1. The Bill is inconsistent with the method of proceeding set out in the National Strategy for Women and Girls.
  2. Consultation with employers, trade unions and other relevant stakeholders has not taken place.
  3. The exercise of any authority or power to make a scheme would be at the sole discretion of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. There is no provision under which the Minister may require or request IHREC to make a scheme. As such, there is no guarantee that enactment of this legislation would result in introduction of wage surveys as envisaged under the Programme for a Partnership Government.
  4. Any such scheme would not require approval of the Minister. While IHREC has undoubted expertise in this area, it may be appropriate that any powers are subject to the control of the Minister. (For example, under section 31 of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014, codes of practice can be prepared by IHREC for submission to the Minister and the Minister may by order approve them. There is no similar mechanism in the present Bill).
  5. The Bill provides for an offence of contravention of the provisions of a scheme by an employer. The imposition of a Class A fine in respect of this offence would appear to be disproportionate in comparison with other offences under the IHREC Act 2014, which are liable for Class C fines.
  6. The Bill includes terms and concepts in the new section 32A, subsections (4) and (5), which are unclear and may need to be defined. These include the pay quartiles, and breakdowns by reference to employees’ ages and by part-time and full-time status.
  7. Legal concern: It is possible that the pay of some individuals could be worked out from the information published in accordance with a scheme provided for in this Bill e.g. information on the proportions of men and women in the different quartile pay bands. This raises data protection concerns.

In conclusion, although I as part of this government, do not oppose the proposed legislation – there are numerous issues, which I have outlined, which need to be further examined.

Furthermore, as I previously highlighted, there are a number of complex reasons why there is a gender pay gap. Therefore, the solution will also most likely be complex. We must address a number of factors and solutions in order to narrow the gap, such as providing affordable childcare.

The government has implemented legislation towards achieving and developing equality in Ireland, such as the introduction of two weeks’ paid paternity leave.

In my view, we must continue to debate and implement a wide variety of solutions to this complex issue.

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