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Unions fight for equal pay

Unions fight for equal pay

Staff at Met Office campaigning for equal pay

On Equal Pay Day we recognise the sad truth of the persistent gender pay gap, but we should also celebrate the work of unions in achieving greater equality.

It’s depressing to note that from 10 November women are effectively working for free for the rest of the year, compared to men. This is because women on average earn 18% less than men.

Prospect makes a difference

This month we are celebrating the great success at the Met Office, where the gender pay gap has been virtually eliminated. In February 2016 we presented tribunal claims for 77 women members claiming equal pay. There were three preliminary hearings, including a significant victory in January, where we successfully resisted the employer’s attempts to limit the scope of claims. Following this, the employer obtained Treasury approval to enter into settlement discussions on individual cases and, very importantly, a new pay structure for the whole office. As a result, the majority of staff will get a very significant pay increase of up to £7,000 and the new pay agreement brings the overall pay gap down from over 10% to less than 1% by 2019.

The Met Office case is the latest in a number of legal challenges over recent years. Our main focus has been on challenging discriminatory use of length of service. This started with two cases against HSE. Bernadette Cadman’s case went to the European Court in 2006 and Christine Wilson’s case to the Court of Appeal following year.

These cases are all about challenging pay systems which are reliant on length of service. Where the pay structure disproportionately adversely affects women workers, the employer must be required to objectively justify the difference in pay. It is unlikely an employer would be able to justify long pay scales with little progression.

Length of service requirements can disadvantage women in different ways. It could be because of career breaks or gaps in service due to caring responsibilities. But in many Prospect areas it is largely because of traditionally male dominated workforces, where women are coming into these jobs in greater numbers in more recent years, such as factory inspectors, auditors, vets, patent officers, meteorologists and scientists.

Since the success of Bernadette Cadman’s case in the European court, Prospect has presented cases for hundreds of members, against more than 10 different employers. In each case we have successfully resolved claims for individual members, and in many cases we have negotiated new pay structures to benefit all employees. For example, in 2013 we had a case for six women members at the Intellectual Property Office, this settled the day before the final hearing, and not only did the six individual women members receive increases in pay and back pay, but other men and women in the same pay band had increases of up to £8,000.

It is important to recognise that our equal pay litigation has been a crucial way to bust the Government’s public sector pay restraint.

Just this week, we reported the tribunal victory for a Prospect member who works for UK Power Networks. She had raised concerns that she was not being paid equally to men for some time, and with union backing her pay was eventually increased. However she was then passed over for promotion. The tribunal found that she had been subjected to unlawful sex discrimination and had been victimised for raising her pay complaint. 

Strategic litigation ‘plus’

Prospect’s strategy in many of our cases has been to combine litigation with other action. For example, in the case at the Met Office, the branch prepared an equal pay manifesto, lobbied parliament, and took strike action. This multi strand approach worked extremely well. We use the law and legal successes to build on our negotiating position to collectively bargain for fairness.

While celebrating our victories, I would particularly like to thank, our fabulous women members who have taken claims to fight for justice for all. There have been many real trailblazers who have been prepared to take a stand to fight for equality. Also we should note the tireless work undertaken by our reps in the workplace, who have organised cases and done so much of the ‘leg work’ necessary to prepare the legal arguments.

Value of unions

Unions have brought nearly all the big cases on equal pay over the years. The legal complexity and cost of running cases means that individuals would rarely be able to successfully bring claims. Our cases against HSE took almost ten years and involved nine separate hearings.

But also unions can use the law as part of our ‘tool box’ and we are uniquely placed to negotiate improvements for all workers to eliminate inequality.

You can hear Sue Ferns, Deputy General Secretary and me talk further about equal pay on a new Unions 21 podcast released to coincide with Equal Pay Day.

Marion Scovell

Marion Scovell


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