Equal pay for work of equal value is a misunderstood concept

On March 8, 2019, the members of the United States women’s national soccer team marked International Women’s Day by filing a class-action suit against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation, alleging gender differences in pay and employment conditions. In spite of the Equal Pay Act 1963 that prohibits gender-based wage discrimination in the United States, the women’s team receives US$99,000 (RM408,919) while the men’s team is paid a whopping US$263,320 (RM1,087,643) for the 20 games each team plays in one year.

Not too long before, in 2017, the women’s soccer team’s counterparts in ice hockey fought with their federation ahead of the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation World Championships, threatening to boycott the tournament over "fair wages and equitable support”. USA Hockey ended up agreeing to a landmark agreement that improved the team’s annual compensation to about US$70,000 (RM289,000) per player.

While the world slowly recognises that pay discrimination in women’s sport is a labour issue, similar discriminations persist across all jobs globally, and such discrimination also occurs in rich countries and countries that have equal pay legislation in place. Women in countries that are members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) earned 13.8% less than men in 2018. A small improvement from the 15% gap recorded 10 years before. The United Nations’ most recent global estimates place women’s wages at 23% less than men.

Shanthi Dairiam, Women’s Aid Organisation exco member, says the principle of “work of equal value” is underdeveloped in most countries, including in Malaysia even though Malaysia had ratified the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) Equal Remuneration Convention 1951 (or C100) in 1997. Shanthi explains that one challenge that hinders the practical realisation of the various dimensions of “work of equal value” is that legislation does not expressly refer to “work of equal value”.

Shanthi’s example of labour segregation in Malaysia better illustrates the concept of “work of equal value”. Rubber plantations employ largely women to tap rubber while men are preferred on oil palm plantations as harvesters of oil palm fruit bunches which are large and heavy. The latter job requires physical strength whereas the former requires skill and precision. A slightly deeper cut of the rubber tree bark would ruin the tree and an insufficient depth of cut would not let the latex flow. However, according to records from 2012, the physical strength required in harvesting oil palm fruit bunches was valued more than the skill required to slice rubber tree bark, as reflected in the remuneration for the two jobs.

This explanation also best describes how the principle of “equal pay for work of equal value” addresses a specific aspect of workplace discrimination, namely the undervaluation of work commonly done by a disadvantaged group – women. It is thus of central importance that legislation gives specific guidance to the meaning of “equal value” and that it is clearly differentiated from work which is the “same or substantially similar”.

In exploring the application of these principles where there is extensive job segregation, Shanthi explains that the problem is not that women are paid less for the same work, but that they are concentrated in undervalued feminised work.

Workers in garment factories, for example, are paid less than workers in the car manufacturing and assembling industry. The former is an industry that recruits largely marginalised women to make up a cheap, feminised labour force to produce low cost garments that will sport the labels of fast fashion brands. While pressured to meet their daily quotas or forgo overtime, sewers’ use their skill in completing every garment, without any mistakes or defects, incredibly quickly. In the meantime, the automotive industry claims that theirs is a skilled job, but such claims stem from long-standing gender prejudices. The concept of “work of equal value” insists that the comparison should not be limited to the content of the work and that job requirements, such as the level of skill, effort, responsibility, and working conditions, are also considered.

Sandra Fredman, Rhodes Professor of the Laws of the British Commonwealth and the USA at Oxford University, explains that legislation should not only refer expressly to work of equal value, but also elaborate on the concept. It should be stated expressly that "work of equal value" need not be the same work, but work that is comparable in relation to levels of skill, responsibility, effort and working conditions.

It has been 23 years since Malaysia ratified the ILO's Equal Remuneration Convention but there has been no call for legislation to reflect equal pay practices for “work of equal value” in the wage system. This is partly because the most effective champions of worker rights, the trade unions, are predominantly led by men who fail to understand the concept of “work of equal value” and its importance to women’s economic empowerment.

In conjunction with the UN’s International Equal Pay Day on Sept 18, 2020, Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS) calls on the Malaysian government to include amendments in the Employment Act 1955 Amendment Bill that will guarantee equal pay for work of equal value. The amendments must also include clear guidance on conducting an objective job evaluation system with the participation of stakeholders and social partners. The ILO Guide to Gender Neutral Job Evaluation can help speed up the drafting of these amendments.

We also call upon trade unions to champion this vital labour right and push for it to be included in labour law reforms before the next parliament session. Trade unions play an important role in improving worker rights through collective bargaining.

PSWS is also reaching out to all the women’s movements in the country to advance the principles of the Equal Remuneration Convention and campaign against this form of economic violence against women.


Executive director, Persatuan Sahabat Wanita Selangor (PSWS)

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gender pay gap , equality , discrimination , work


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