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Equal pay for all!

Agnes Jongerius
Dutch trade unionist and MEP since 2014 with the S&D Group

It was the early spring of 1957, when a group of smartly dressed gentlemen were sitting at a table in Rome. After a long day of meetings, the gentlemen signed a document that laid the foundation for the future European Union: the Treaty of Rome. Most ideas that originated there have been made reality over the last 65 years, like the creation of the customs union, a European Social Fund or even the establishment of the European Commission as we know it today. However, one fundamental principle is still missing proper execution. Article 119 asks for: “the application of the principle that men and women should receive equal pay for equal work”. A promise that we can finally fulfil in 2022, but only with each other, and not against each other. 

On average, for every hour worked, women in Europe are paid 13 per cent less than men – which is a significant pay gap! When Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took office, she promised us to close the pay gap by presenting new legislation within her first 100 days. Two and a half years later, we read with moderate optimism the Commission’s proposal: the Pay Transparency directive. 65 years too late, but at last: large companies will be obliged to investigate, report on, and close the pay gap in their organisation if there is one. But only closing existing gaps is not enough. It is also about preventing new pay gaps from appearing. Therefore, we were happy to read that employers would no longer be allowed to ask for a previous salary slip and that they must indicate in the vacancy or before the first interview in what wage scale a position falls, making sure that both the job and the salary would be determined on an objective basis.

The problem, however, is that reporting would only be mandatory for large companies. It would only apply to employers with over 250 employees. In our view, the law should apply to all companies, regardless of the number of employees. But the co-rapporteurs seem to be putting aside their progressive ideals as the law comes to a conclusion. While we often find an ally in the Greens and Renew to oppose conservative majorities, this time, both political groups positioned themselves on the other side of the aisle, as they argue that the Pay Transparency directive should only apply to organisations with more than 50 employees. But that would mean that the directive would only cover half of the European workers, as most companies in Europe are (much) smaller. Whereas their draft report aimed initially at companies with ten or more employees (which still only covers 71 per cent of employees), they have let go of their ambition. The liberal idea that gender should not influence your salary was already embedded in the early European treaties. Therefore, it is regrettable that liberals in the European Parliament now put forward a compromise that would only help half of the workers in Europe.

The scope of the law is not our only point of concern. The way companies should deal with the results of internal pay gap reports also falls short. For example, the law assumes that only a pay gap of five per cent or more needs to be tackled. This ignores the goal of equal pay and fosters the idea that a small pay gap is acceptable. As if we would accept a 4 per cent harassment at the workplace. Every percentage point of inequality is too much. In addition, 4.9 per cent of your salary is a lot of money for people with a small wallet. For a parent, it can make the difference between letting your child go on a school trip or not.

We cannot close a gap by building a bridge halfway, forcing people to jump to the other side with their eyes closed. The pay gap will only close if it applies to all employees. Therefore, it is necessary to make the law applicable for smaller companies too. The European Parliament will determine its position on this file in the coming weeks. It is now up to us, as MEPs, to ensure the most ambitious position for the European Parliament in the trilogues. Equal salary is not only for the happy few, but for everyone. 

In 2022 it is no longer only gentlemen in black suits and with moustaches who dictate the law. Nowadays strong, progressive women represent the European Parliament as co-rapporteurs. They now have the opportunity to make a difference for all of us. It is one for all and all for one. We need to seize this momentum and make a law for all of us. To rephrase George Orwell: all workers are equal, and some workers should not be more equal than others.


The author would like to thank Vera Tax for her suggestions and comments. Tax and Jongerius are trying to close the pay gap in the Netherlands with the initiative ‘Omdat ik het verdien’.

Photo credits: Shutterstock

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