Social dialogue moved pay-gap reporting closer

It may soon be law for companies to report pay gaps between male and female staff, says Bernard Harbor.

A remarkable thing has happened, and quickly, on the issue of gender pay-gap reporting in Ireland.

A year ago, few political parties or employers’ groups supported the idea of compelling businesses to publish

details of the difference in the average pay of their male and female staff.

A Programme for Government commitment was limited to requiring companies that had 50 or more employees to undertake, rather than publish, gender wage surveys.

Marking 100 years of suffrage, at Leinster House, in January, were Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Senator Alice Mary Higgins, Catherine Martin TD, Fiona O’Loughlin TD, Senator Rose Conway Walsh, Senator Ivana Bacik, Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan, Senator Gabrielle McFadden, and members of the Gaiety School of Acting,Meg O’Brien, Megan O’Malley and Evelyn O’Keeffe.

When unions stepped up their campaign on the issue, early last year, it was seen as niche.

And as recently as last July — not long after the row over gender pay imbalances among top names in the BBC and RTÉ hit the headlines — Ibec dismissed the idea of publishing pay-gap details as “inappropriate”.

Today, the employers’ body has come round to the idea of a statutory requirement on employers, while a private members’ bill, put down in the Seanad by Labour’s Ivana Bacik, last year, has passed its second stage, with cross party support.

It’s more than 40 years since equal-pay legislation was introduced in Ireland. That was a massive breakthrough, but, four decades later, progress has stalled.

Teenage girls who entered the workforce when equal pay was first etched into law are now drawing their (generally meagre) pensions. But women here still earn 15% less than their male counterparts, on average.

Supporters of gender pay-gap reporting don’t approach the issue with fingers pointing. It’s not a blame game.

Rather, we have won broad support for the view that transparency in individual organisations is about encouraging progress by shining a light on the causes of inequality. This, in turn, will encourage employers to do more to address them.

A growing body of employers and politicians of all hues has been convinced that revealing the pay gap in their own backyard — no matter how wide it might be — need not be punitive.

So much common ground has been achieved that, earlier this year, my former Impact colleague, Lughan Deane, published a joint blog with Ibec’s senior labour market policy executive on the need to develop appropriate methodologies for gender-gap reporting.

We came a long way in a short time by talking to each other. Instead of throwing brickbats, Ms Deane lifted the phone and started a conversation.

Fears that gender pay-gap reporting would place too great a burden on employers were addressed through dialogue and, before long, we were exploring a common approach to tackling what both sides of industry saw as a problem.

This pragmatic approach to solving common challenges in the workplace needs to be put on a more stable footing.

The gender pay gap will be the first issue discussed at Fórsa’s inaugural national conference this morning.

RTÉ broadcaster Sharon Ní Bheoláin pay relative to other RTÉ presenters sparked debate on the gender pay gap that exists across workplaces.

Tomorrow, we’ll be also calling for a formal social dialogue forum, where employers, government, and workers’ representatives can discuss, and agree on, policy issues that affect us all, but which can’t be resolved in the workplace.

There’s not much appetite for a return to social partnership agreements that cover pay rises and tax changes.

The Government doesn’t want it.

Opposition parties still think it toxic. Employers — public and private — have got on with doing pay deals without it.

And there’s no trade union consensus in favour of returning to Government Buildings, either.

But there should be a place for government, unions, and employers to deal with issues like pensions, employment rights, and the cost of housing and childcare, which impact on businesses and on their staff.

The recent establishment of a Labour-Employer Economic Forum (LEEF), involving government, business and unions, was a step in the right direction.

But it should be developed so that issues affecting workers and employers outside their immediate workplace

can be resolved. These would be issues that impact on livelihoods, working conditions, living standards, competitiveness, and big immediate headaches, like Brexit.

The rapid progress made by dialogue on gender pay-gap reporting demonstrates that all stakeholders could benefit from this approach. We’ve shown that, if there’s enough common ground, a wide divide can be quickly narrowed by talking and working together.

The ultimate decisions on these matters rightly rests with our democratically-elected Oireachtas. But Kildare Street also needs to be responsive, when society has reached a consensus.

On the gender pay gap, we have an opposition bill that has progressed through the Oireachtas with broad cross-party support. There has been thorough debate and an official public consultation.

Ictu and Ibec have been liaising closely, and both now support the principle.

Employers’ and workers’ representatives have moved to consensus rapidly over the last 12 months. Now, it’s time to get the law on the statute books.

Let’s see how nimble our elected representatives can be.

Bernard Harbor is head of communications with Fórsa, the country’s newest trade union, an amalgamation of Impact, the CPSU, and the PSEU. The union’s first national conference opened in Killarney yesterday evening.

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