The Price of Inequality

Submitted by Anon on 12 October, 2007 - 10:36 Author: Maria Exall

It is estimated that the potential cost of equal pay claims in the public sector is in the billions. This is money that the Government insists must be found from existing NHS, Local Authorities and other public sector bodies’ budgets. The Unions involved have asked the Government for funding directly to sort out the inequality.

This has not happened. Instead, divisive deals have been agreed in some areas with the claims of women workers being set against the interest of (often male) workers without claims. Large amounts of money are involved, because claims can be backdated to the introduction of sex discrimination legislation, andthe claims potentially affects hundred of thousands of women workers. These women deserve justice, and all workers deserve decent pay.

Last week the Government announced a relaxation of financial rules for Local Authorities that allows them to use capitalisation budgets for equal pay claims. This will apparently have the practical effect of freeing up £500 million.

It is not justice, but it is an indication that Government recognises the scale of the problem. We should support the Union claims for full funding of the price of the claims. There is no other equitable way to solve the problem.

Equal pay, or more accurately the lack of it, is not just a problem in the public sector. It is a big issue in the private sector too. But because the proportion of women working in the private sector is lower, a lower percentage of the workforce covered by collective agreements, and union density in the private sector is low, it means that there is less chance of women making a successful claim.

Despite the Sex Discrimination Act being in force since the mid 70’s, the factors that keep women’s pay down persist. The three main reasons as to why women get paid less than men are: job segregation within the labour force (and the devaluing of “women’s” jobs); the loss of income through being a carer (especially because of childcare); and good old fashioned discrimination and prejudice.

Many surveys come up with the fact that unequal pay is often unequal for no other reason than the fact you are a woman. This happens in pay systems where your salary is determined individually (performance related, etc) and arbitrarily. In the private sector it is also common for even non-management pay rates to be a matter of secrecy and internal company discipline.

In these circumstances, even to get to the stage of making a claim would require access to more legal and economic analysis that most working women can afford!

Employers in the public and private sector should be subject to mandatory pay audits on equal pay so we can make progress on equality. This is a longstanding demand of trade union women. So far the Government is running scared of the CBI, who want to stick with “light touch” regulation on equality (as with everything else). Warm words and promises from employers about positive action are not a substitute for legislation. The positive action should come in the enforcing of the legislation!

The Government’s current Discrimination Law Review, which will lead to a Single Equality Act in this Parliament, has the potential to provide a platform for trade unionists to take up equality issues in the workplace, with improvements like equal pay audits and funding for equal pay cases. We need improvements inequality legislation and we need fighting unions to take up the cause of equal pay on behalf of millions of working women.

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