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Women still earn 17% less – but who should fix the wage gap?

Finland's minister of equality issues says it's up to employers and unions to narrow the pay gap between women and men. The head of the country's biggest union disagrees.

Juha Rehula
Juha Rehula has been Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services since 2015, following an earlier stint as Minister of Social Affairs and Health. Image: Antti Kolppo / Yle

The debate over the pay gap between women and men in Finland shows no signs of letting up. The country prides itself on egalitarianism, but women still earn an average of 17 percent less than men.

The predominantly-female Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors (JHL) is calling for separate wage increases for female-dominated sectors on top of any possible overall wage hike.

"We need a separate supplement payment because women work long days on small salaries," says Päivi Niemi-Laine, president of JHL. It bills itself as "the largest trade union in Finland" with nearly 225,000 members in a wide range of fields.

Last year's "competitiveness pact included cuts in holiday pay and now it would be good to agree on how to move forward with the Equal Pay Programme that was agreed in three-way talks between the government and the labour market organisations," Niemi-Laine says.

The Equal Pay Programme first took effect in 2006. It has been included in the platform of each cabinet since then. That includes the present centre-right government, which included it in its agenda through 2019.

Minister: Ball in the court of labour groups

Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services Juha Rehula of the PM's Centre Party, whose portfolio includes equality issues, says it is important that the current government decided to extend the programme. Rehula argues however that wage issues must be settled by labour market groups.

"These wage issues and remuneration elements are bilateral issues that are decided at the table by employees' and employers' organisations," Rehula says.

"Over the past three years, the progress toward equal euros has come to a halt, but it's too early to evaluate this whole legislative period," the minister said. There are still more than two years to go in the current parliamentary term.

Niemi-Laine of the JHL disagrees completely, demanding that the government play an active role in narrowing the wage gap.

"This should be advanced as a three-way effort" between unions, employers and the state, she insists.

Depends on how you count it

Rehula points out that pay equality is also a calculation question. There are many reasons why figures suggest that a "woman's euro" is only worth 83 cents compared to that paid to male workers. These include how long each person has been in the labour market and the fact that women and men still tend to be concentrated in different sectors. Fringe benefits and other forms of remuneration also play into the statistics.

Rehula says there are many factors involved in how remuneration can be balanced.

"Improving the parental leave system is one area that is mentioned in the Equal Pay Programme. These kinds of moves can have an impact in the long run, but what happens in 2018 or 2019 depends heavily on what is accomplished through the normal labour market processes," Rehula says.

_EDIT This story has been edited to remove the suggestion that women are paid 17 percent less than men 'for corresponding work'. Women are paid 17 percent less than men in Finland, but the reasons for that include the fact that salaries for several women-dominated sectors are well below those of male-dominated sectors. _

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