Women's rights in Europe get a gust of fresh air

"The winds of change are blowing," an activist with the European women's rights movement says. "But face it, they are breezes, not gales." Swiss voters confirmed that trend June 14, deciding in a national referendum to make equal-pay-for-equal work a constitutional right. They also thereby destroyed the last European bastion where full equality in employment was not guaranteed by law. (Women won the right to vote in Switzerland only 10 years ago.)

"The Swiss vote shows that even in backward countries like Switzerland, there exists the political will for change," a feminist said. "I'm afraid, however, that harder realities such as high unemployment will play a much greater role than political will in determining the direction of our struggle in this decade."

Some analysts go further, suggesting that with unemployment rates rising to postwar record highs each year, the women's fight for job equality in Europe could be entering its rockiest period to date.

The fight for job equality will be fought on many battlefields, perhaps most decisively in courts, where women claim that they are receiving less pay than men doing similar work. "Equal pay is the essential foundation for the promotion of equal opportunity," says a women's rights specialist at the European Community headquarters in Brussels.

"The number of cases brought before the courts is growing rapidly as women become more aware of their rights," according to the specialist.

Last month, the EC Commission took Britain to the European Court of Justice for having failed to implement in full the EC equal-pay directive of 1975. Several months ago, the European court ruled in favor of Wendy Smith, a warehouse manager at a British pharmaceutical firm, who claimed that the company paid her $20 a month less than he male predecessor. The ruling expanded the 1975 directive to include work done at different times.

Equal-pay principle, in fact, was incorporated in general terms in the EC's founding treaty 23 years ago. Recent interpretations have ruled that court cases won by women could mean compensation dating back to 1976.

Some setbacks on the equal-pay scene have come to light in recent months. In Britain, the Equal Opportunities Commission found that the average woman's salary today is 73 percent of the average male salary, against 75 percent four years ago. This compares with significant progress made immediately after the sex descrimination act was passed in 1975. With unemployment up sharply, however, from 5.4 percent in 1979 to 8.8 percent last year, women's rights activists fear that a national backlash against women in the work force may have set in.

Among European countries, Sweden, France, Denmark, and the Netherlands -- in that order -- lead in wages paid to women as a percentage of wages paid to men. They average 80 to 90 percent (against, for example, 65 percent in the US and 55 percent in Canada), according to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The EC, emphasizing that "the principle of equal pay has not been completely realized in any Community country," says that in all manufacturing industries, the gap between the pay of male and female workers is one-quarter of gross average earnings.

No one denies that in the past 15 years, major changes for the better have been made in Western Europe on the equal employment front.

Government have formed national commissions and agencies designed specifically to handle the problems of women workers.In some countries, equal opportunity officers have been appointed. In others, notably Austria and the Scandinavian countries, women have relied heavily on trade unions to implement policies for equal opportunity through collective bargaining and worker education. A model instrument, according to the OECD, is the wage solidarity policy drafted by the Swedish trade unions, which has effectively eliminated the wage gap between men and women in Sweden.

In some countries there has been a shift in the struggle for equality in employment away from attacks against "direct" discrimination -- such as in pay policies -- to "indirect" discrimination.

"Once indirect discrimination is understood," a statement released after an OECD ministerial meeting on women in the labor market last year said, "the effectiveness of individual complaints can no longer be relied on as a major impetus to enforcement efforts." Some countries, the statement said, are therefore shifting priorities toward modifying the way in which fi rms select, recruit, assign, train, and promote employeeS.

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