Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Mind the gap

It was the 40th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act in May, but Jon Robins finds there's still a long way to go before equal pay becomes a reality

June 16, 2010
7 min read


Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


  share     tweet  

The UK’s oldest equal pay law was guided through parliament by Barbara Castle as one of the last acts of the outgoing Labour government in 1970. The then employment minister had been angered into championing the legislation following a walk-out by women sewing machinists at the Ford car plant in Dagenham a couple of years earlier. They had discovered that men doing the same work as them, making car seats for Cortinas and Zephyrs, were being paid 15 per cent more.

The Equal Pay Act 1970 finally came into force under another Labour government on 29 December 1975, with employers having been given the intervening period to adjust to its provisions. For many of them, though, not even 40 years has been enough, and overall the gender pay gap remains a gaping chasm. The Fawcett Society reckons that women working full time earn on average 17 per cent less than men, while part-time women workers earn 37 per cent less. Some of the worst offenders are public sector employers: the public service union Unison is currently representing some 40,000 low-paid women in equal-pay claims.

In April another piece of landmark anti-discrimination legislation entered the statute books. The Equality Bill finally became law in the ‘wash-up’ of bills passed in the dying days of the last parliament, pushed forward by another Labour champion of women’s rights, Harriet Harman. The much-anticipated new legislation was seen as an opportunity to address some of the deficiencies of the earlier law that was struggling to deliver on the promise of its title.

Taking notice

‘Nobody takes any notice of the Equal Pay Act. The simple truth is there’s never enough money,’ says Sue (not her real name), a 53-year-old home care worker. For almost two decades Sue has worked for Cumbria County Council helping the old and vulnerable in their homes. She is one of 1,600 low-paid women to have pursued equal-pay claims against the council through Unison. She recently received more than £30,000 in compensation.

While happy with the pay-out, Sue makes the point that the sum doesn’t represent ‘equal pay’. If there was genuine equality with her male council workers, how much should she have been paid? ‘Double that,’ she reckons, adding that her union had to fight ‘tooth and nail’ on her behalf to get her what she did receive.

Does Sue feel that the Equal Pay Act has made life any fairer? ‘Not really. My feeling is the council gets away with what they can. They know they have a group of women like us, loyal and who want to do their best for the vulnerable in the community, and who are for those reasons unwilling to strike. They take us for granted. We still don’t get paid time-and-a-half or double-time like the mainly male workers whose jobs have been contracted out.’

Although the first equal pay legislation took effect in 1975, it wasn’t until 1995 that legal action by Cleveland ‘dinner ladies’ kick-started a wave of settlements and equal-pay cases being brought through the courts. In the Cleveland case 1,500 women shared a £5 million payout. After that, the 1997 ‘single status agreement’ was constructed to abolish pay inequalities through pay and grading reviews in each local authority. A similar agreement in the NHS called ‘Agenda for Change’ was reached in 2004. But as negotiations dragged on interminably and councils pleaded poverty, women turned to lawyers because they felt their claims were either being stalled or under-settled.

Good business for lawyers

There is no legal aid for cases involving employment tribunals but lawyers took numerous equal-pay cases on ‘no win, no fee’ deals. It proved a lucrative income stream, with lawyers sometimes taking 30 per cent of any payouts – and it was growing fast. In 2003 such cases comprised less than 1 per cent of business dealt with in employment tribunals. Within five years, though, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) was warning that equal-pay cases could ‘crash’ the courts, with as many as 150,000 women entitled to compensation from local authorities and the NHS. The Equal Pay Act was ‘past its sell-by date’, said Trevor Phillips, chairman of the EHRC.

Much of the ire of a coalition of equality campaigners, trade unionists and politicians was directed at Stefan Cross, a Newcastle-based solicitor, who acted for tens of thousands of low-paid women. ‘What he’s doing could mean that industrial relations in this country will be torn up,’ Brian Strutton, a leading official of the 600,000-strong GMB union, told the press. ‘It will be good for lawyers, but millions of people won’t have a union which can represent them.’

By contrast Cross, a former union lawyer who acted for the Cleveland dinner ladies, accused his former comrades of selling out their women members. Speaking to Cross earlier this year, I asked him how he responded to accusations that he was trashing the negotiations between unions and employers by pursuing individual cases in this way. ‘Total tosh,’ he replied, arguing that the ‘fact of the matter’ was that the unions were ‘neglecting their role’.

‘The men get preferential treatment to the women even in the new arrangements,’ he insisted. ‘The women’s interests get sidelined. The trade unions speak with forked tongue on these issues. They claim to espouse issues to do with equality – however, they seek to protect the status quo.’

The appeal judges seemed to agree with Cross, who still acts for 30,000 low-paid women, in a crucial case that came before them in 2008. They upheld an employment tribunal’s finding that the GMB union ‘rushed headlong’ into an ‘ill-considered back-pay deal’ in one case (Allen v GMB) and ‘accepted too readily the council’s plea of poverty’. The judges agreed that the GMB had indirectly discriminated against 26 female workers who had been paid less than their male counterparts when agreeing backdated pay deals. In that case, home carers (a female-dominated job) were on £5.88 an hour whereas a gardener on the same grade (a male-dominated job) was on £8.23 due to a 40 per cent bonus.

Some critics say that statistics measuring the gender gap between men and women are a hopelessly crude measure of progress, not least because they ignore the decision by women to choose lower paid jobs because such roles better suit their lives. The Fawcett Society disagrees, arguing instead that the main reason for the gap is explained by ‘paying women less than men for doing the same jobs or work of equal values’. The other big reasons are what they call the ‘motherhood penalty’ and the undervaluing of traditional ‘women’s work’, such as cleaning, catering and caring.

Problem with the Act

So will the Equality Act narrow the gap? ‘There are measures that will highlight the issues of equal pay but they won’t deal with the systemic problems of equal pay,’ says Unison’s legal director, Bronwyn McKenna. For example, the new legislation will promote transparency and will require public sector bodies with 150 or more staff to publish their gender pay gap and require the same of private and voluntary sector employers with at least 250 employees. ‘So that would leave about 40 per cent of the workforce not covered,’ she notes. It will also ban pay-secrecy clauses which effectively conceal inequality.

‘Our main problem [with the Act] is with the underlying legal framework, which means that cases just run for an inordinately long amount of time,’ says McKenna. ‘There is huge scope for tactical or time-delaying approaches, which the other side is going to throw at you and which you know aren’t going to succeed.’

She points to a recent successful case on behalf of women working with special needs children, care workers and dinner ladies in Sheffield. They claimed that they had not received bonuses that were being paid to their male comparators, street cleaning workers and gardeners, whose basic was 33.3 per cent and 38 per cent respectively higher than their pay. The women’s success this February also reveals the problem. ‘This case has been running for almost a decade,’ McKenna says. ‘There seems to be no limit to the amount of money that the public sector employer is prepared to throw at these cases.’

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Jon RobinsJon Robins is a freelance journalist and editor of www.thejusticegap.com


#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going