Monday, 8 March 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I welcome the Minister to the House and I wish him a happy International Women's Day. On this day, the Labour Party Senators have asked the Minister to give us a proposed timeline for the introduction of gender pay gap legislation. We are all only too well aware of how urgent this is.Every year, 9 November marks Equal Pay Day, which recognises that Ireland’s gender pay gap of 14.4% effectively means women work for free for the rest of the year. To put it another way, women stop getting paid at around 4 p.m. every day.
In other jurisdictions, gender pay gap legislation requires employers to publish disaggregated data illustrating whether a gender pay gap exists and requires them to take action where it does. This sort of legislation has been effective in addressing the gender pay gap. The Labour Party introduced a Bill in the previous term, namely, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (Gender Pay Gap Information) Bill 2017, which would have applied to all organisations with more than 50 employees. It passed all Stages in the Seanad by 3 October 2018 and was referred to the Dáil, passing Second Stage there in November 2018. We are asking the Minister to contemplate taking on that Bill. I am conscious that the previous Government also introduced the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill 2019 in that term but that Bill remains languishing before the Dáil. Does this Government propose to introduce a new Bill, for which there is a commitment in the programme for Government, or will it take on our Bill or the previous Government's Bill? Either way we want to ensure there is progress on this issue.
A piece by Mark Tighe in The Sunday Times yesterday gave a very strong indication of why this is necessary. The publication of the pay gap figures from RTÉ showed that a significant pay gap on grounds of gender still exists in RTÉ three years after the initial publication of figures in 2016. According to 2019 data, one in five women working in RTÉ earns less than €40,000, compared to almost one in ten men, and 63% of women there earn less than €60,000, compared to just 46% of men.
It is great to have the Minister in the Chamber today. It is difficult to convey the enormity of the challenge of trying to close the gender pay gap in this country. Senator Bacik spoke about the hourly wage gap but we all relate to weekly or monthly earnings and the average weekly earnings for women in this country are 25.05% less than the average weekly earnings of men. That is because of the gap in hourly pay but also because more women are trapped in part-time employment. Some 11% of men were in part-time employment in this country last year, compared to 28% of women. When it comes to retirement, that gap gets even bigger. We know from EUROSTAT figures that there is a 28.6% gap between the pensions of men and women.
Such is the scale of the gap that not one single legislative measure will be a magic bullet. We need a series of measures. The legislation Senator Bacik put forward three years ago will only shine a spotlight into recruitment and progression practices within firms. That is an important starting point and an important spotlight but it cannot be the finish line. The game-changer in closing the gender pay gap is the right to be recognised for collective bargaining. One might ask how that relates to women. There is a growing body of international evidence that shows that where there are higher levels of co-ordinated bargaining within workplaces there is lower wage dispersion, and when there is lower wage dispersion there is less of an earnings gap between men and women. The EU adequate minimum wages directive will also be hugely instrumental in allowing a framework for the right to collective bargaining in this country. The Tánaiste, along with fellow EU employment ministers, is actively trying to hobble this directive. As a first step, we are asking the Government to get on with the legislation and then allow this directive to pass.
I thank Senators Bacik and Sherlock for raising this important issue today. I wish them and the House a happy International Women's Day. I share the Senators’ concerns regarding measures to increase pay transparency as a means to tackle the gender pay gap, although Senator Sherlock is right that it is just one of the means. As the Minister with responsibility for gender equality, I am very conscious of the importance of the gender pay gap as a metric of women’s economic empowerment relative to men’s. It illustrates the degree to which women’s hourly pay, on average, is lower than men’s during their working lives, with implications for their risk of poverty, including in later life. Senator Sherlock outlined the enormity of the problem pre-Covid but I am also conscious that, in the emerging women's labour market, participation is being impacted differently and to a greater degree than that of men as a result of Covid-19.Women are over-represented in the sectors that have been badly affected. Women are experiencing greater conflict between working and their family lives. Women are more likely to have reduced working hours, suffer job loss or leave the labour market. After earlier periods of lockdown, the female labour market has recovered at a slower pace than that of men. If this pattern persists, it could have long-term implications for female participation and employment rates, women's career progression and women’s pay in general. These are all factors that are already known to impact on the existence and size of gender pay gaps.
Addressing the factors behind the gender pay gap is a key commitment in the national strategy for women and girls. It is a multifaceted task involving a number of Departments and agencies. Initiatives to address the gender pay gap can be expected to have a positive impact on disparities in income for women across and after their working lives. This is why, in the programme for Government, we have committed to legislate to require publication of the gender pay gap in companies and the public service. The aim of the Government’s Gender Pay Gap Information Bill is to provide transparency on the gender pay gap and incentivise employers to take measures to address the issue insofar as they can.
The Bill was published on 8 April 2019, completed Dáil Committee Stage in June 2019 and was restored to the Order Paper in July 2020. I intend to bring legislative amendments to Cabinet in the next fortnight which will allow the Bill to progress to Report Stage. I am committed to enabling the enactment of this Bill as early as possible and I will seek to do so after the Easter recess. I assure Senators that I view the Bill as a priority so it will languish no more.
Senators may also be aware that, last week, on 4 March, the European Commission published proposals for the introduction by member states of binding pay transparency measures. This proposal meets a commitment of the EU gender equality strategy and reflects one of the political priorities of the European Commission. The legislative proposal focuses on two core elements of equal pay, namely, measures to ensure pay transparency for workers and employers and strengthened access to justice for victims of pay discrimination on the grounds of gender. In particular, it would require the introduction of statutory obligations on large employers to publish information on the gender pay gap and provide for internal reporting on pay differences among female and male workers in the same category. Employers would also be required to assess the pay of a category of workers where the gender pay gap exceeded a given threshold - 5% is proposed - and is not justifiable on objective gender-neutral factors.
It is envisaged that the proposal will now go to the European Parliament and Council for approval and that, once adopted, the Commission proposes that member states will have two years to transpose the directive into national law and communicate the relevant texts to the Commission. These proposals are an important development at an EU level and will be reviewed in the context of the provisions of existing employment obligations and entitlements and the Gender Pay Gap Information Bill once that has been legislated for.
I thank the Minister for setting out so clearly the proposed timeframe. I am glad to hear that he proposes to bring legislative amendments to the existing Government Bill from 2019 and that he plans to do so in the next fortnight. We will work constructively with the Minister to ensure the legislation is swiftly enacted and that, as the Minister said, it languishes no more. In particular, we will ask him to adopt some of the principles that were in the Labour Party's gender pay gap Bill which made it a stronger Bill than the original Government Bill from 2019. The Minister's colleagues in the Green Party supported our Bill when in opposition in the Seanad. I hope we will see stronger legislation and that, in particular, it will apply not only to larger employers but also to those with 50 or more employees. I also hope it will include significant remedies and penalties for employers which do not take remedial action to meet their obligations under the legislation.
I will consider all amendments proposed in the legislative process, as I always try to do. We are bringing a number of changes to the Bill and having examined the original draft, I believe, they will strengthen it. In particular, we intend to introduce a mechanism for an earlier review. I understand the review period in the current draft is after five years and I intend to shorten that. There is always a balance to be struck between giving legislation some time to demonstrate its strengths and potential weaknesses and not leaving it too long.Five years is probably a little bit on the long side for a review period so that is certainly one element I am looking at. I am also looking at the role and powers of remedy of the IHREC, which are important as well. Obviously I do not want to go into huge detail until I have discussed this with Cabinet colleagues but I will look at amendments from across the House on that as well.