Unions organise ‘Equal pay day’ to highlight gender inequalities in labour market

On International Women’s Day on 8 March 2008, political parties, trade unions, researchers and women’s groups seized the opportunity to highlight concerns about the living and working conditions of women in Belgium. As the gender wage gap remains, amounting to an average differential of 15%, the Belgian trade unions jointly organise an ‘equal pay day’ each year. This event has been running since 2006.

A press release issued by the Federal Public Service for the Economy, SMEs, Self-employed and Energy (SPF Économie, PME, Classes moyennes et Énergie/FOD Economie, KMO, Middenstand en Energie) presented the results of research on the socioeconomic profile of women (in French, 250Kb PDF). According to the results, ‘women remain more often at home, work on a part-time basis and earn smaller wages and are thus more exposed to poverty’.

Research findings on gender inequalities

The research, which was conducted on behalf of the Belgian Minister of Economy, was fittingly presented on International Women’s Day on 8 March 2008. It reveals some interesting findings in relation to the living and working conditions of women in Belgium.

For example, while two thirds of the male population are in regular paid employment, just over half of the women are active in the labour market, including the 43% of women who work part time. When comparing this figure with that of their male counterparts, only 7.8% of men work on a part-time basis. Against this background, it seems that women, and more particularly single mothers, statistically show a greater exposure to poverty.

Regarding wages, women and men are still on an unequal footing. According to the recent government report, women earned on average 15% less than men for an equivalent job in 2005 (SPF Économie, PME, Classes moyennes et Énergie/FOD Economie, KMO, Middenstand en Energie, p. 3). The trade unions, however, believe that the wage gap amounts to 25%, as stated in the documentation on wage differentials published on ‘Equal pay day’ in 2007. The considerable difference between these two wage gap figures highlights that such estimations should always be used with care. The government calculates the wage gap on the basis of gross monthly wages of full-time employees, while the trade unions establish their calculation of the wage gap on gross hourly wages of both full-time and part-time employees. Most women work part time and, therefore, generally work fewer hours than men – hence the significant difference between the government estimate of a 15% wage gap and the trade unions’ estimate of 25%.

Action day to promote gender equality

The promotion of better working conditions and equal pay for women has been an important and favouritesubject for the trade unions for a long time. Since 2006, the Belgian General Federation of Labour (Fédération Générale du Travail de Belgique/Algemeen Belgisch Vakverbond, FGTB/ABVV) and the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (Confédération des Syndicats Chrétiens/Algemeen Christelijk Vakverbond, CSC/ACV) have been jointly organising an ‘Equal pay day’ with the aim of raising awareness of the gender discriminations that still persist in the labour market. The trade unions use this special event as an opportunity to communicate to the public their demands for both equal opportunities and working conditions.

Among the issues highlighted include methods for assessing the general wage gap in companies: for example, it has been suggested that calculations could be based on companies’ social and financial reports, if one extracts staff costs and the number of people employed by gender.

Moreover, further resources are needed to ease the way of combining working life with family responsibilities and leisure time – such as day care nurseries close to the working place. Other trade union demands focus on the necessity of changing traditional mindsets in terms of gender-specific career choices, for instance by promoting a more neutral and less stereotypical school education and career orientation for girls and boys.

Indirect discrimination

Most acts of discrimination against women are often the indirect consequence of socio-cultural stereotypes. Even if the employment rate is increasing in certain jobs which are traditionally considered being typical ‘male jobs’, such as those of lawyers, police officers or accountants, other occupations are still regarded as traditional female jobs, such as those of nurses, secretaries, cleaners or primary school teachers. This ‘horizontal’ segregation into different types of jobs, where entire sectors such as social services or healthcare are virtually reserved for women, while sectors such as information technology (IT), industry and financial services are associated with men, implies an indirect discrimination in terms of salary. This is due to the fact that women work in sectors where jobs are more precarious and less well paid (see also Chapter 1 of the Fourth European Working Conditions Survey and Chapter 2 of Working conditions in the Europen Union: The gender perspective).

Some of the jobs which are mostly carried out by women are offered on a part-time basis only, leaving workers no choice but to work part time. For instance, most cashiers in supermarkets involuntarily work part time and on the basis of flexible working time schedules which prevent them from supplementing their part-time job with another part-time occupation.

In addition, a large number of women interrupts, either partially or totally, their professional careers to take care of their children due to the lack of childcare facilities or other practical problems related to combining work and family life. In general, men opt less often for part-time work and for completely different reasons; in most cases, men choose to work part time either at the beginning or end of their career. Furthermore, part-time work still impacts negatively on promotion opportunities, career paths and pension benefits.

Women underrepresented in trade unions

Wage equality is an important element of trade union demands, even if the world of unionism is still comprised mainly of men. According to CSC/ACV, in 2004 some 44% of company employees covered by workplace elections were women, while they represented only 33.6% of the elected CSC/ACV delegates in works councils.

For this year’s employee representative elections, trade unions are encouraging women to become candidates, adopting special initiatives to attract female candidates through ‘billsticking’ campaigns or special informative meetings.

It is worthwhile noting that a large number of women still doubt their abilities or are convinced that it would be too demanding for them to take up additional responsibilities at the workplace. Nonetheless, issues such as the organisation of work, training or recruitment criteria are important for women and their working conditions.

Emmanuelle Perin, Institute for Labour Studies (IST), Université Catholique de Louvain (UCL)

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