Heather Wakefield 13 July 2007

It’s payback time

Trade unions and campaigners usual march on Westminster to lobby MPs for a change in law.
But this week, the clarion call is even simpler. We just want local council employers to follow the law which already exists relating to equal pay.
In fact, the Equal Pay Act (EPA) has been on the statute books for almost 40 years, but remains largely ignored by some 70% of UK local authorities.
So, what does the law say? British lawmakers made it unlawful to pay men and women different rates of pay and conditions for equivalent work in 1970. The EPA took effect five years later. This discriminatory practice has also been banned by EU law.
The Act stipulates that it is unlawful to discriminate between men and women in terms of pay. And despite claims from a small minority of ill-informed journalists, and self-interested ‘no-win, no-fee’ lawyers, that unions have ‘let down’ women members by ignoring the equal pay issue, nothing could be further from the truth. It was the unions which fought tooth and nail for the laws in the first place. In fact, the TUC first argued for equal pay laws in 1888.
And it is the National Joint Council unions which have tried to negotiate with local councils on the ground for a single-status delivery framework, where male and female workers enjoy the same terms and conditions for equivalent posts.
 Ten years ago, the Government and local authority bosses agreed to deliver single status by 1 April 2007. With that deadline passed, just 30% of councils have complied, and these tend to be the smaller employers.
Nationally, we estimate some 75% of women in local government may still not be receiving equal pay.
Some days ago, Unison and GMB represented thousands of female care assistants, home carers, cooks and night-care assistants from Cumbria CC at yet another costly tribunal.
Male staff had been receiving bonuses which female workers in equivalent jobs did not. Others earned enhancements to their hourly pay rates while working unsociable hours, while female colleagues received only basic pay rates.
This case had continued for a number of years. In fact, the tribunal found in our workers’s favour last year, but the council used precious council taxpayers’ cash to appeal.
We will not, and have never hesitated to take out mass litigation to support our members’ quest for what is rightfully theirs under British and EU law – the same pay for equivalent work as male colleagues.
Nevertheless, I emphasise for the umpteenth time, that collective bargaining and negotiation is the best way to deliver equal pay to all workers.
At best, successful tribunal cases only have a random effect. They merely benefit those individuals who have lodged legal claims. Sometimes they take so long to resolve, these claims end up benefiting a worker’s estate.
This is important to those unlawfully discriminated against. But Unison wants to see EPA implemented robustly across the UK in future and this is why we are joining other trade unions to lobby parliament this week.
How can we move on from here? And why are we lobbying parliament? Put simply, perhaps one of the most pivotal reasons why, despite unions’ best efforts, local councils have been so slow has been due to chronic under-funding in local government. And no efficiency savings delivered by council workers have been ring-fenced and then reinvested to soften the costs of equal pay.
As this year’s Comprehensive Spending Review approaches, we are therefore asking MPs to back Leicestershire MP David Taylor’s parliamentary motion which calls on central government to ‘provide sufficient funding through a good financial settlement for local government’ this year.
It is outrageous that workers continue to be paid less on the basis of their gender, more than 30 years since the EPA came into force, and at least 100 years since hard-working people first brought it to national attention.
With a new prime minister and administration at the helm, and a fresh and more conciliatory approach to public services promised, now is the time for the UK to belatedly drive a final nail in the coffin of unlawful pay practices once and for all. n
Heather Wakefield is head of local government for Unison
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