France’s minister for women’s rights, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, revealed on Thursday that the government had handed out fines to two French companies – one in the Paris region, and the other in the south-western region of Aquitaine – for violating their legal obligation to “equal pay for equal work” between women and men.
The firms are the first ever in France to be legally sanctioned for such a breach, despite the existence of legislation dating since 2010.
Women's rights activists have responded enthusiastically to the announcement.
Clemence Helster, from the group "Osez le Féminisme" (Dare feminism) told The Local: "This is great news. It sends a strong signal to all companies that they can't ignore equal pay, or treat it lightly. These sanctions make the issue a concrete reality."
In an interview with French daily Le Parisien on Thursday, Vallaud-Belkacem said that the government had recorded 135 such infringements in the last four months.
“Sanctions are a last resort, but to be effective they have to be dissuasive, and especially plausible. Then, companies will say to themselves: ‘That [the fine] is too big, let’s not risk it,’” Vallaud-Belkacem told the newspaper.
The first company, located in the Ile-de-France region that surrounds the capital, has been ordered to pay a €5,000 penalty every month “until they bring themselves in line with the law”, Vallaud-Belkacem said.
Female employees there had been receiving an average of €500 less than their male counterparts every month.
The second firm, in the Aquitaine region, employs 180 workers and had failed to supply the government any internal documents, as required by law. It has been handed an €8,500 penalty.
With Le Parisien estimating that two-thirds of French companies are ignoring their gender equality responsibilities, these first two sets of sanctions could prove to be only the start of a wave of legal action against rogue firms.
“Equal pay for equal work” is governed in France by a November 2010 law, implemented by the administration of then French President Nicolas Sarkozy. It requires any public or private company with a staff of more than 50 to treat women and men equally in terms of wages and promotions.
Despite this legal framework, France’s national statistics agency, INSEE, revealed earlier this year that women in France earn on average 18 percent less than men doing the same work in the public sector, and 28 percent less in the private sector.
The financial penalties for violating companies, which can amount to as much as one percent of their total wage bill, according to Le Parisien – are intended to have a chilling effect on French businesses.
Explaining how the government came to sanction the first two companies, Vallaud-Belkacem told Le Parisien: "Once you have given explanations, and warnings, it's perfectly normal to demand a settlement. And fear of police intervention also works."