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Women's pay still lags, U.N. agency finds

Published Sep. 16, 2005

Despite a half-century-old worldwide agreement that a woman and a man must earn equal wages for equal work, the International Labor Organization says women's pay levels still average far below men's.

"Women still earn between 50 and 80 percent of men's wages worldwide," the U.N. agency said in "More and Better Jobs for Women," an ILO document made public Monday.

Lin Lean Lim, the paper's author, said advances have been made since 124 governments signed the equal-wages agreement in 1951, but "progress has been neither universal nor sustained, even in countries and areas which have made explicit efforts."

Last year in the United States, women made an average of 75 cents for $1 men made, according to U.S. Labor Department statistics.

The United States and other rich countries should be the first to enforce the accord, she suggested, but noted that the U.S. Senate never ratified it.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich promised last month to get President Clinton to ask Senate approval of another agreement banning job discrimination, including discriminatory treatment of women. That ILO agreement dates from 1958.

Ms. Lim's paper points to a special difficulty for U.S. compliance: Each state has labor laws, and the federal government has trouble getting them to conform.

"In some states . . . women could not legally be required to lift loads of more than 30 pounds," the paper says. "This was used to justify paying (men) a higher wage."

Ms. Lim said her country, Malaysia, has moved closer to equality because a continuing economic boom has created a labor shortage forcing it now to import workers from the Philippines and elsewhere. More Malaysian girls are attending schools, she said, which she considers the single most important requirement for Third World countries to rectify man-woman pay discrepancies.

More education increases a woman's earning power, cuts population growth and increases the likelihood that children of both sexes will survive, be better cared for and educated, she said.

"It makes no economic sense for a country to discriminate against half its population," Ms. Lim said.

Her report says that in Latin America and the Caribbean, an average woman can earn as little as half a man's pay. In rich countries, the difference can be less than 10 percent.

In a preface to the guide, ILO Director General Michel Hansenne said women have unequal chances for training, access to loans, choice of jobs, share in decision-making, family responsibilities, career prospects or steady work _ as well as unequal pay.

The ILO has 179 member countries, with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. It includes representatives of governments, employers and labor.

_ Times staff writer Teresa Burney contributed to this report.