By Nick Holden
One thousand five hundred women working at Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumbria Hospital have won a historic victory in their eight-year battle for equal pay with traditionally male jobs in the NHS.
The women’s occupations range from nurses and healthcare assistants to catering assistants, domestics, clerical officers, sewing machine assistants, porters and telephonists.
Equal value claims were lodged in August 1997 for 14 different working categories, using five different male comparators: craftsmen/joiners, building labourers/wall washers, works officers, craftsmen supervisors, and maintenance assistants.
Pay rates, hours of work, pensions, weekend working rates and sick pay were all included in the comparisons which showed that women were treated unfairly by the old pay system.
The pattern of pay at the two hospitals is typical of the whole NHS — which suggests that this case could have been a legal landmark for all NHS workers. However, rather than take the Carlisle case as a benchmark and fight for upgrading of staff doing the same jobs in every other hospital in the country, the unions instead pinned their faith in the new pay system for the NHS, “Agenda for Change”.
Agenda for Change sees many NHS jobs re-graded and an entire new pay system put in place, supposedly to end inequality and poverty pay in the health service. But while the Carlisle case results in massive uplifts for those staff found to have been historically underpaid, Agenda for Change leaves their pay mostly unchanged, and instead penalises the men in the “comparator” groups, who now find themselves classed as “overpaid” and facing years of a pay freeze, and possible pay cuts in future!
Although the unions are heralding Carlisle as a victory — and it is — the case shows the shortcomings in their wider strategy for equal pay in the NHS.
With Agenda for Change being rolled out nationally, the chances of replicating the Carlisle victory elsewhere are disappearing.
However, there is still a fight to be had over back pay for those groups of staff who are shown by the Agenda for Change process to have been underpaid in the past.
Union activists in the NHS should be pointing to the Carlisle case as evidence that the fight for back pay under Agenda for Change should be more than a token gesture.