Why Danes want to boost equality by scrapping a 1969 public sector pay reform

Why Danes want to boost equality by scrapping a 1969 public sector pay reform
Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix
A petition demanding the end of a rule which critics say causes unequal pay between men and women in Denmark’s public sector is to be discussed in parliament.

The so-called citizens’ petition (borgerforslag) calling for equal pay for public servants in different sectors has reached the necessary 50,000 signatures to qualify for parliamentary discussion.

It took just eight days from the publication of the petition on March 8th for it to hit the 50,000-signature mark, according to news wire Ritzau.

The petition asks lawmakers to revoke a 1969 wage reform, tjenestemandsreformen, which placed public servants on 40 different pay grades, with sectors traditionally seen as dominated by women, such as nursing and childcare, given lower pay than jobs such as teacher or police officer.

Parliament is now required to consider the petition in the form of a bill and the parties must decide which group will officially submit it.

Pernille Skipper, equality spokesperson with the left-wing Red Green Alliance, told Ritzau that the wage hierarchy rules should be reformed.

“The reform is extremely important when it comes to unequal pay,” Skipper said.

“The wage hierarchy from the reform still exists and that means that social workers, nurses, childcarers and others get worse pay than male professions with equivalent education lengths, seniority and competencies,” she added.

Under the model known as the Danish system, salaries are normally decided through collective bargaining agreements (overenskomster in Danish), which are negotiated by trade unions and employers’ associations. Denmark has a high rate of trade union membership at around 70 percent.

Parliament has no involvement in such negotiations except in cases where there is a major breakdown in the talks.

But Skipper called for political action to provide for high wage levels for various public sector professions.

“We are now in a situation in which collective bargaining agreement negotiations probably won’t fix this, and they [the public, ed.] are now turning their focus towards Christiansborg (parliament),” she said, adding she “couldn’t agree more” that politicians should act on the issue.

The 1969 reform can still be seen in unequal salaries, according to Astrid Elkjær Sørensen, a PhD researcher in history at the Danish School of Education (DPU).

There is a “strong connection” between the hierarchy established in 1969 and that seen today, Sørensen told Ritzau.

“When you negotiate collective bargaining agreements, there is an overall salary figure. So if you want to change one group’s salary, the others must hold back (from asking for an increase),” she said.

The Social Democratic government looks unlikely to support the attempt to scrap the decades-old wage hierarchy.

“The way things are in Denmark is that setting of salaries is left to the labour market actors. That is the Danish agreement model. A model which we, time and again, point to as the right method for the Danish labour market,” the party’s employment and equality minister Peter Hummelgaard said at a parliamentary committee on March 10th.

“That’s why the solution to the equal wage problem can and must be found within the Danish model. We shouldn’t break with that,” he added.

The citizens’ petition was put up by “midwives, childcarers, nurses, social workers and academics on behalf of all affected professions,” according to the text of the petition.

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