Riina Sikkut: Wage gap and strawberries

Riina Sikkut (SDE).
Riina Sikkut (SDE). Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Attacking foreign seasonal labor and criticizing farmers and horticulturists has proved an unpleasant and lingering topic for the Conservative People's Party (EKRE) that might even end up impacting its rating.

When I read the news that Minister of Finance Martin Helme does not deem greater salary transparency necessary for mitigating the gender wage gap, I thought that ridiculing the wage gap and the honorable quest of containing EU bureaucracy were good ways of drawing attention away from strawberries. But I was wrong. Helme's position reflects genuine ignorance and hypocrisy.

The minister had simply tied the "standard" arguments – that wage transparency adds to the administrative burden, the wage gap is closing anyway, the gender wage gap doesn't exist because people do not feel they are paid less because of their gender or pay others less because of it, that it's not the right time because of the crisis/summer/financial situation/other important topics – together in the competitive ability of enterprise.

In short, he concluded that implementing wage transparency measures is a challenge for the global competitiveness of companies, talent seekers cannot be discriminated against, entrepreneurs need to be trusted, wage formation needs to be free and that salary talks motivate employees to develop their skills.

Allow me to address these claims

Indeed, global competitive ability is important for Estonia and the European Union, but that does not mean competing in the lowest price category. We have not been able to do that for a long time, nor can it be our goal as it comes with poor working conditions and lower salary.

Europe's competitive edge needs to lie elsewhere. Biodegradable packaging, sustainable products, handicraft and Estonian strawberries are not the cheapest options available, but we still buy them. We do it because it corresponds to our values, represents something we want to support and prefer to consume.

To seek an analogy – Europe's "human-centered digital economy" means that we cannot produce as cheaply as China. We do not want to surrender our data to major U.S. corporations and believe that a person must remain in control of their data and technology cannot be used to violate human rights.

Of course, the nature of work is changing, employees move all over the world and we can work from a distance. That said, subconscious attitudes and preconceptions also cross borders and the global race for talent in no way rules out discrimination.

Therefore, a greater measure of internationalism is no guarantee of the wage gap disappearing. The gender wage gap is present in other countries, while many of us still work from nine to five and for a single employer. That is to say, a lot of people still do not share in the potential benefits of the global competition for talent.

Helme opined that "entrepreneurs should be trusted and spared additional restrictions, including as concerns salaries." Excuse me? What we have been hearing [from him] in the past months instead is that entrepreneurs are slave drivers, should pay higher salaries and that seasonal laborers are of the devil. Where is the trust for entrepreneurs in that? Why is the finance minister not worried about the competitiveness of farmers?

To put it in the gender perspective, it seems Helme is cultivating cross-border solidarity between men. Ukrainian men working in construction and agriculture cannot be paid less, while what our women get paid doesn't matter – suddenly we need to trust entrepreneurs so paying women higher salaries would not impact competitive ability!

The finance minister endorsed free wage formation. "We believe that the main factor in salary is the person's contribution in the company, while gender is of no significance," was his message.

At the same time, the burden of caring for relatives is one-sided, there is gender segregation in education and the labor market and women are underrepresented on the executive level. However, "we" believe that none of it affects hiring and salaries. I wonder whether this "we" stands for EKRE ministers, finance ministry employees or men? Go figure!

We also learn that salary negotiations boost workers' motivation for self-development. While we cannot rule out this has been the case for some, recommendations such as "try harder and be better" do not reduce structural inequality on the labor market. Especially in a situation where women do try – their average education level is higher than that of men.

According to data from Statistics Estonia, women have also participated more in lifelong training since 1997. However, 23 years of making efforts and being better do not seem to count when it comes to salary discussions.

Helme's conclusion is that all gender wage gap regulations should be abolished because "Estonian entrepreneurs do not discriminate against people based of their gender!" By the way, Estonia does not have gender wage gap regulations but a simple obligation to pay equal wages for equal work.

Continued inequality cannot be allowed

The gender wage gap has been a topic of public debate for over a decade in Estonia. The country continues to have the greatest gender wage gap in the EU that, according to data from Eurostat, had come down to 22.7 percent in 2018. Until now, Estonia has limited its action to raising awareness, additional training for employers and analyses.

It is very important for every employer to improve their recruiting and remuneration principles to consider employees' actual skills and know-how. This reduces subconscious preconceptions and attitudes concerning people's gender, age and special needs.

Wage differences should be understandable and explained to workers – to improve in-house climate and work satisfaction.

It is still believed in Estonia that the wage gap will close on its own and that no intervention is needed. We cannot allow inequality to continue, hoping that the gender wage gap will disappear on its own or because of free market mechanisms. Just as the free market permits "slavery," it turns a blind eye to unequal salary.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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