Current issues

Pay inequity

In the Québec public sector, does everyone get equal pay? A study from IRIS (Institut de recherche et d’informations socio-économiques) provides conclusive evidence that this is not the case. If the public sector is viewed as an extended family, public services – which include the civil service, education, and health and social services – are definitely the poor cousin, as becomes apparent when we compare the sector’s various branches.

The double standard

For equivalent work, employees in the health and social services system – where most jobs are held by women – earn significantly less than employees in other sectors where the workforce is predominantly male.

The overall compensation for employees in public services is 24% lower, on average (see this table), than the overall compensation earned by their counterparts in major public corporations such as Hydro-Québec, Loto-Québec, and the Société des alcools.


What accounts for this discrepancy? Gender-based pay discrimination. If people are paid less in public services as a whole, it’s notably because women form a 72% majority of the workforce (see this table), which rises to 81% in the health and social services system. This is one of the major findings of the IRIS study.


Inequity has a price

The pay gap between employees in public services, who are primarily women, and employees in other branches of the Québec public sector, who are primarily men, is impressive: $5.9 billion in terms of wages alone.


This is the amount in unpaid compensation that the government expects 543,000 employees in public services to forego, year after year. It’s the price of inequity – the price of gender-based systemic discrimination in Québec’s public service. How did we get here? One major factor is that for at least 20 years, the government has been relentlessly requiring employees in public services to tighten their belts. Employees in publicly-owned corporations, the police force, and the medical profession are not treated this way. As long as the government refuses to implement a catch-up pay increase and amend the Pay Equity Act to make comparisons possible between different sectors, it must take the blame for this shameful discrimination and unfairness, and for failing in its duty to act as an exemplary lawmaker and employer. Right now, its policy is simple: “Do as I say, not as I do.”

The limits of the Act

Isn’t there a law in Québec to rectify pay inequity?
Yes, there is. The Pay Equity Act requires firms and organizations employing 10 or more people to establish pay equity measures and evaluate them periodically. However, the Act is designed to focus on one organization at a time, making it almost impossible to apply the rules of pay equity between different firms or different sectors. For instance, it is impossible for us to compare ourselves with Hydro-Québec.

In practice, the Treasury Board is viewed as a different employer for each component of Québec’s public service: the civil service is in one category, and the education and health and social services systems in another.

In fact, we cannot even compare ourselves with other public employees in Québec. As a result, the government can offer employees in public services lower compensation than what is provided for employees in public corporations such as Hydro-Québec or Loto-Québec. It’s legal: they’re following the letter of the law, if not the spirit. But it isn’t in any way equitable or fair.

It’s an investment, not an expense

$5.9 billion in catch-up pay? “Don’t even think about it!” But why should people working in public services be forced to foot this bill? We’re talking about a total of 543,000 Quebecers. Somehow, when 22,000 physicians are involved, money is no object: the pay gap with Ontario physicians must immediately be bridged. Do physicians face any pay inequity based on gender? Have they been the target of a systematic 20-year effort to reduce their pay? Has their standard of living dropped? No. We need to shift our perspective and stop seeing the money assigned to health and social services as an expense that must continually be reduced. It is actually an investment – and we are investing in what is most valuable to us: our community and our fellow citizens. Implementing the necessary catch-up pay increase to provide fair compensation for people working in public services will give a boost not only to their morale, but also to the economy and to taxation revenue – effects that will be felt throughout Québec.