Unequal pay in Denmark: The impact of an outdated law

Danish nurses still receive 10-20% less in pay than male-dominated professions requiring a similar level of education. There are many contributing factors to unequal pay, but a recent report from the Danish Institute for Human Rights found that one key reason is the effect of the 1969 Public Servant Reform Act which saw nurses and other female-dominated professions placed at a lower pay level. In recent national negotiations, Danish nurses voted ‘no’ to a pay offer of up to 5% which was set to preserve real wages for public workers over the next three years. A citizens' petition to reform the law in respect of many traditionally female professions has also received the requisite 50,000 signatures for it to make it to parliament.

A group of people demonstrating in red clothes and with red banners.
A recent demonstration by nurses in Copenhagen with banners saying "We are worth more. Increase wages" (Vi er mere værd. Lønløftet). Photo: Signe Hagel Andersen.

Central to the current fight for equal pay in Denmark is the call for the Danish parliament to revisit the Public Servant Reform Act of 1969 ('Tjenestemandsreformen af 1969'). The act was intended to modernise the employment system for state employees and allow the state a greater control over wage developments. It is regarded as one of the main causes as to why the female-dominated professions in the public sector still have a lower wage level than their male counterparts in positions with a corresponding level of education and responsibility.

Public employment terms in 1960s

The 1960s can be described as a crossroads for the public sector in Denmark. While there was a huge growth in public services and spending, the old system for state employees – one that was not made for such a large and diverse public sector - was still in place. Before the 1960s, state employees, including nurses and teachers, had terms and conditions that were set down in law and not decided via collective bargaining. As the welfare state grew in the 1960s, employees at the municipal level started to outnumber state employees, and in many public professions, there was a shortage of qualified candidates. To attract employees, public employers started to offer higher salaries under collective bargaining to avoid the lower salary levels fixed by law, and a two-tier system arose. For example, a nurse working under collective bargaining earned approximately 115 % compared to one employed as a civil servant in 1965. Furthermore, different public employers started to outbid each other in terms of salary, which increased overall public spending.

Prior to the Public Servant Reform Act being passed in 1965, a commission was tasked with collecting data on and objectively assessing all job functions as officials wanted to construct a wage scale and terms and conditions based on solely objective criteria. However, collecting such a large and diverse amount of data turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. The commission could also not decide which criteria they should use when classifying the different professional groups and exactly how these should be weighted in relation to each other. In a letter forwarded to all the ministries the commission mentions workload, education and responsibility as criteria for the work assessments, but it never actually succeeded in developing a system for assessing the various positions. Furthermore, the commission was tasked with not significantly increasing spending on public salaries. They therefore had to maintain the existing status quo with respect to wages, limiting the number of professional groups that could be moved to a higher wage bracket. The commission itself indicated that the status quo at that time dated back to the first Civil Servant Act of 1919, so they had little room to manoeuvre: increasing wages for one professional group would lead to demands from others.

A young lady (40 years old) hugging an elderly lady. They look happy and grateful. Picture is in warm, pick, orange colours

PICTURE: A poster with Danish actress Sofie Lassen hugging her midwife with the caption, "My midwife is worth more. Midwives for Equal Pay" (Min jordemoder er mere værd. Jordemødre for ligeløn). Photo:  Jordemødre for Ligeløn.

Structural sexism: The Public Servant Reform Act of 1969

The commission openly acknowledged that it had not met its own expectations of creating an objective wage and classification system. However, the need for modernising the public sector’s employment system was urgent and a number of unjustified classifications therefore had to be temporarily accepted. The commission’s final proposal, which became law, perpetuated a system that dated much further back in time, but was pressed through and it was hoped that subsequent reforms would even any inequalities out.

The Danish Parliament adopted the Civil Servant Reform Act on 18th June 1969. However, several politicians openly stated that they did not have a full overview of the reform or the principles behind the wage classifications. Several politicians also highlighted professional groups whose classification they did not find reasonable, but without proposing concrete amendments.

The Public Servant Reform of 1969 attempted to create an employment system that was in accordance with the growing welfare state. It was a comprehensive revision to the state’s wage, pension, and employment system and its main purposes were:

  • to make a more flexible and modern hiring system;
  • to ensure greater uniformity in employment conditions; and,
  • to give the central administration a stronger control over public spending on wages.

An important part of the reform was a new wage and classification system in which all state-employed civil servants were placed on a wage scale. In appendixes, the act also classified all employees in the Danish state church, primary schools and employees working in pedagogical institutions. The wage and classification system consisted of 40 salary brackets where each salary bracket contained up to six salary steps built with a 2.75% increase in the lower salary brackets and 5.5% in the higher ones.

Against this backdrop, the female-dominated professions were generally placed at a lower level in relation to their education and level of responsibility at the time.

The act also set out that the rest of the public sector should strive to synchronise their wages with the new system and this wage gap eventually spread to every other type of public worker. This led to the wage and classification system being transferred to the municipal level in the early 1970s meaning that municipal civil servants - and importantly other employees who fell under collective bargaining agreements - received close to identical salaries with those in equivalent or similar positions. Likewise, from then on, the state negotiated wages and working conditions before the municipalities, ensuring that public servants’ wage levels were negotiated before that of the employees under collective bargaining. This effectively ensured the state a relatively high degree of control over wages in the public sector and a parallel wage development across the whole sector.

Collage of 80+ selfies of different women of all ages and ethnicities wearing something red.

PICTURE: Compilation of Danish midwives showing their support for equal pay by wearing red accessories. Photo: Jordemødre for Ligeløn.

Public wage scales today

In December 2020, a report from the Danish Institute for Human Rights examined the relationship between wage scales for public workers in 1969 and in 2019 and found an overall correlation coefficient of 0,90, demonstrating that there are similar wage differentials today as there were then.

This in itself is not a problem if the wage differences between the professions initially seemed well-founded and remain so. To investigate whether the wage scales in 1969 and 2019 were unfavourable for female-dominated professions, the level of education was analysed. The report found that the female-dominated professions in 1969 were, in general, placed lower that what could be expected based on the corresponding length of education, while the male-dominated professions were placed higher.

The same trend could be observed in 2019, but, perhaps surprisingly, there is even less correlation between educational level and position on the wage scale.

TV gear and people in masks holding red signs telling the government to repeal the Public Servant Reform Act.

PICTURE: Demonstrators in front of the Danish Parliament, Christiansborg in Copenhagen this week demand the government abolishes the Public Servant Reform Act 1969. Their signs say "Hello! 1969 has called" and "Repeal the Public Servant Reform Act from 1969." Photo: Astrid Elkjær Sørensen.

Political action

While the wage disparity emanating from the act and equal pay generally has been on the agenda for many years in Denmark, the report triggered a renewed public and political interest in recent weeks. What should be done to solve the wage gap stemming from a law that was passed over 50 years ago? COVID has in Denmark, like elsewhere, highlighted how care work is an essential part of society’s infrastructure, creating a lot of support and momentum for equal pay activists who garnered support for a citizens’ petition in a record eight days. The citizens’ petition calls for the 1969 Civil Service Reform Act to be repealed and for equality of pay between all public professional groups to be introduced. Longstanding concerns over piggy-backing claims (if the wages of one profession are increased, another group will demand the same) must be overcome.

Politicians have to date tried to avoid responsibility by suggesting that the common method of resolving industrial disputes in Denmark should be used, that is, collective bargaining between the trade unions and the employer federations (the ‘social partners’). However, the message of nurses and the other caring professions has recently sounded loud and clear: It is up to the politicians to do something about an outdated law that has unwittingly echoed down the ages.

This article is co-published with The Conversation UK.

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