Pesky women want the pay they’re owed

Being employed in the public sector has some advantages, not least that the government is relatively keen to get its own house in order on the issue of the pay gap and discrimination. So local councils have been carrying out equal pay audits to check that they are not paying women less than men for the same work.

Unsurprisingly, the audits have revealed a massive and historic discrepancy – landing the councils with an estimated £2.8 billion bill to rectify the situation, according to The Guardian.

A survey of 79 councils showed that around 40% of female staff are owed money and 20% of men should take pay cuts to bring their wages into line with their colleagues. Only 40% of council workers are being fairly paid.

Yes, that’s a lot of money, and yes, it is going to be difficult for the councils to take these funds away from schools, dustbin collections and all the other myriad and useful services provided by local authorities. But it’s also important to remember that the workers who have been systematically underpaid because they are women are the same people who run these services. The same survey showed that an average of 29% of the money is owed to school support staff – such as classroom assistants and cleaners. In some councils, that figure was 75%.

You would think that the unions would be up in arms about this. After all, the fact that millions of workers have been underpaid for years is surely bread and butter stuff for folks like the public sector union Unison. And, to an extent, this is true: the unions have been trying to negotiate collective deals which would see all affected staff get some money. However, what the unions are also doing is trying to dissuade women from taking their cases to court to get the full amount they are owed.

The Guardian also ran a longer piece today, which goes into the issue in more depth. The example it gives is Rosaline Wilson, aged 60, who worked for years at £6.50 an hour managing a team of 13 care workers:

“Then I read an article about the lawyer Stefan Cross in the local newspaper. I thought, wait a minute, I’m a manager, and I get 50p an hour more than the people I manage.”

Cross ended up representing Wilson and 26 other women in her department in an equal pay case which saw her awarded £32,000; after her lawyer’s fees and tax, she ended up with £18,000 – some £13,000 more than the council had offered her to settle out of court.

“The union said we were rocking the boat. They told us they would sort it, that we’d lose our jobs [if we went ahead], but they never did sort it,” Wilson said. “Yes, we paid Stefan Cross. He deserved every penny. Without him they would have wiped the floor with us.”

The same lawyer is also representing 5,000 women in a case against the GMB union. According to the Guardian, “the union is accused of sex discrimination against its female members by encouraging them to agree a settlement in the north-east that seriously undervalued their claims and prioritised pay protection for their male colleagues”.

Considering that Cross is one lawyer, it’s interesting to note that his firm claims to have worked with 30,000 women in equal pay cases – 5,000 more than the GMB, even though it’s the biggest union in the country.

In the press release announcing the 25,000th case the GMB has brought, GMB National Secretary Brian Strutton is quoted as saying: “Our low paid women members are often unwilling to make a claim for equal pay, which is a shame because it is their legal right.” Yet the Guardian quotes a legal advisor to one of the unions saying that deals which don’t grant women the full back pay they are owed represent “living in the real world where it is not always possible to get everything you want when you want it”.

OK, it may be a big bill faced by councils. It’s going to be an even larger one if the same audits are rolled out across the economy. But whatever the answer is, it’s certainly not for the unions to undersell their members by failing to even attempt to get them a fair deal.