Closing the gender pay gap. What role for unions?

Jill Rubery, The University of Manchester

This paper draws on  work undertaken for ACTRAV, the trade union section of the ILO, to  develop a framework for understanding the  contributions of trade unions and collective bargaining  to closing the gender pay gap.  The key argument developed, drawing on the current state of knowledge  with respect to international comparative evidence, is that gender pay equality is more likely to be achieved within inclusive and egalitarian labour markets. Trade unions and collective regulation are shown to be central to both the development of inclusive labour markets and to the pursuit of gender pay equality. By focusing on this dual function of collective representation, the vital input of trade unions to the closing of the gender pay gap can be identified.

The first part of the framework  identifies the impact of more exclusive labour markets  on gender specific risks of inequality where exclusive labour markets are considered to include not only those dominated by managerial prerogative but also those where trade unions and collective bargaining mainly protect more advantaged and male groups. For  more inclusive labour markets it is argued that it matters not only that collective bargaining coverage is wide but also that inter-sectoral and inter-firm differentials are narrow to limit devaluation of female-dominated sectors and reduce incentives for outsourcing. Complementary policies to promote inclusive labour markets are also required such as transparency, socially-responsible outsourcing, public sector bargaining rights but individual countries may take somewhat different paths towards more inclusivity, dependent on its employment relations systems and trajectory.  The second element to the framework identifies how the effectiveness of specific gender equality measures (revaluation of female-dominated sectors,  gender sensitive job evaluation and gender pay audits) is affected by  the context of inclusive or exclusive labour markets. In exclusive labour markets equality measures might be undermined by stronger ripple effects to restore differentials between low and high wage workers. Gender sensitive job evaluation schemes are more likely to be effective where wage differentials are narrower in general;  gender equality law only provides for equal pay for equal value, allowing scope for large differentials between male-dominated and female-dominated grades even where differences in the value of the work are marginal. Further In exclusive labour markets, raising women’s internal pay grading could lead to outsourcing of female jobs to cheaper providers. Gender pay reports or audits have been found to be more effective when trade unions are involved in monitoring and scrutiny. Moreover, where pay systems are transparent and based around job grading, the causes of gender pay differences can be identified more easily than when pay is individualised and market-based.

This dual strategy for trade union action is then applied to understanding the  potential practices  that trade unions are adopting and could adopt at different levels- international, national, sectoral, company- for promoting inclusive labour markets  and for promoting gender equality. Thus the framework enables trade unions to point to the importance of collectively-determined, regulated and transparent wage setting systems for providing the type of wage-setting environment in which gender pay equity can be enhanced. At the same time it can also be used to identify where more efforts  are needed to, for example,  remove any gender inequality embedded within existing collectively-bargained wage structures.

To illustrate the need for  action at all levels of union structures, at international, national, sectoral and local  levels to close the gender pay gap through the dual strategy of promoting inclusive and gender equal  wage structures, three specific examples are examined.

The first  considers action to improve women’s position  in global supply chain, often located at the bottom of the supply chain ladder. Coordinated actions are found to be needed across different levels of trade unions. Global initiatives are growing in importance as the number of Global Framework Agreements rise and extend into female-dominated sectors but global level action needs supporting by sectoral and local trade union action to improve sector-level and country-level wage standards in female-dominated sectors and to ensure enforcement of  such standards.

The second example is action in the public sector where women tend to be disproportionately represented. Here three types of actions were considered: remedying the long term undervaluation in some countries of public services work, further exacerbated by recent austerity measures; developing sector-wide gender sensitive job evaluation systems or promoting gender equality through follow up to gender equality audits; and inserting social clauses in public sector outsourcing to reduce the use of outsourcing of female-dominated jobs to the lower paying private sector.

The third case explored the impact of extending and raising the wage floor as a strategy for  improving the pay of women workers through the specific case of domestic workers a previously excluded group. Trade union action at all levels was found again to be important, internationally in campaigning for the ILO standards and instruments on domestic workers, nationally in promoting the legitimacy of legal protections and ensuring their observation in practice. Organising domestic workers remains a challenge but the increased formalisation of  domestic work should provide a platform on which unions can build to establish sectoral collective bargaining.

These types of actions to close the gender pay gap are argued also to provide  an agenda for trade union renewal and development. A focus on closing the gender pay gap potentially extends trade union interests into new areas, as in the case of  domestic workers, provides  new perspectives on inequalities, as for example revealed by the  unequal  value distribution within global supply chains, and challenges  often long established undervaluation of female-dominated occupations within public services. Moreover a stronger focus on women’s representation and interests within trade unions should bring in new talent and energy into the trade union movement. Concerted multi-level actions to close the gender pay gap thus can be considered not an optional extra but an essential part of strategies for trade union renewal in the changing employment landscape.