Equal pay claims are a necessary cost for a more equal society

Equal pay has been in the news again in connection with Birmingham City Council’s financial problems. It’s a much broader problem, however, about how we value the work women do.

equal pay with gender sign instead of the 'q'


The long-term impact of an important equal pay ruling on Birmingham City Council has made the headlines over the last week. The ruling has been blamed in part for the Council’ going bankrupt. The decision to declare bankruptcy means that funding has been halted for all but essential costs.

It’s not the only council in trouble, though. Several are in a parlous financial state, including Woking, Croydon, and Thurrock for a variety of reasons. But, as England’s second largest city, it affects a large number of people.

It’s also not the only council facing equal pay claims. Glasgow City Council approved an equal pay deal in 2019. Many other cases are in the pipeline. The GMB union, which is behind many of the claims against Birmingham city council, has claims against councils in Coventry, Westmorland, Cumberland, Glasgow, Dundee and Fife and is reported to be gathering evidence in at least 20 other councils.

This is an issue that doesn’t stop at councils. There are a whole raft of businesses facing claims, including many of the large supermarket chains. The BBC’s Carrie Gracie won a well publicised equal pay case against the broadcaster and has used her win to fund other equal pay cases. It’s part of a move to right historic patterns of inequality that have seen women being paid less for doing similar jobs to men.

While concern is being expressed about the amount of money involved and the impact, in particular, on public services at a time when they are hugely vulnerable, after years of cutbacks and when the public is struggling with cost of living rises, not righting such historic wrongs which result in women facing not just lower pay and greater risk of poverty during their working lives, but also in retirement as a result of the gender pension gap.  The danger is that there is a backlash against gender equality. Yet we surely can’t keep reinforcing a system that doesn’t rate the work women do in the same way that it rates what men do. And when it comes to public sector organisations, such as councils, there is a big question around who should pay – the councils or the government, given the extent of the problem.

Recently it emerged that the single source test which is behind many of the recent claims was due to be scrapped under the Retained EU Law Act which aimed to scrap many EU laws and received Royal Assent in June. EU law enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work for men and women so long as the terms and conditions of a job were attributable to a “single source”. The Government says it will pass secondary legislation before the end of the year to safeguard the right of women to receive equal pay for doing the same or a similar job, even if they work in different locations or the work is outsourced to a separate company.

We will watch closely to see what happens next because any rollback will only serve to entrench inequality at a time when there have been backwards moves on flexible working, when the care structure is falling apart with women – both in paid and unpaid caring roles –  mainly picking up the tab and when gender pay gap reporting was relaxed during the pandemic – a move many saw as showing that it is still seen as a bit of a tickbox, nice-to-have thing rather than an essential part of moving towards a more equal society. A just released UN report on gender equality paints a depressing picture of the gender gap and highlights a lack of commitment to equality globally. The report warns that the failure to prioritise gender equality will jeopardise the achievement of all its 17 Sustainable Development Goals, given women often occupy the lowest paid and most insecure jobs. Fixing gender inequality is important for everyone.

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