Alan Strain: Negotiating around pay inequality

Alan Strain is head of Davidson Chalmers' employment team
Alan Strain is head of Davidson Chalmers' employment team
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When Glasgow City Council, one of Scotland’s largest employers, voted to end more than a decade of argument over equal pay for low-paid, mainly female staff, it was bound to be controversial.

In many ways, the council should be applauded for finally trying to resolve this matter. It was clearly stated in the SNP’s local government manifesto for Glasgow that this was something they wanted to sort out, once and for all.

The BBC's former China editor Carrie Gracie becomes the subject of the story after her equal pay conflict with her employer. Picture: PA

The BBC's former China editor Carrie Gracie becomes the subject of the story after her equal pay conflict with her employer. Picture: PA

Reports suggest such a resolution, which impacts around 10,000 people, will cost around £500 million, which will have to come out of the council’s existing budget, and is certain to mean other services will suffer. The council says it wants to resolve this lingering issue through negotiations rather than dragging it through the courts and employment tribunals.

This is the fine line between what UK employment legislation deems to be just and fair and the practicalities of daily life in a world concerned about Brexit and where councils and services are under the cosh. But this is why we elect our politicians, to make these tough decisions.

Then there is the thorny issue of the BBC. This has been a great deal of debate since it was revealed that prominent big-name male journalists and presenters were paid substantially more than women. The outcry on this, prompted by criticisms by former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie, has certainly damaged the broadcaster’s reputation for fairness and balance.

No-one can say this was all ‘rather unexpected’. The law has actually been pretty consistent about this over the last 50 years.

Most progressive organisations have been paying equally for the same job for many years. The whole issue of equal pay has been at the core of trade union campaigning since the Trade Unions Congress in 1965 and it was set in stone by the Labour Party’s election manifesto.

It was the Equal Pay Act 1970 which prohibited any less favourable treatment between men and women in terms of pay and conditions. This was significant for Britain because its passing also helped pave the way to the UK’s membership of the European Community, with the Treaty of Rome stating each member state shall ensure that the principle of equal pay for male and female workers for equal work or work of equal value is applied. This was superseded by the Equality Act 2010.

So why have so many public sector organisations been dragging their feet? In truth, it has to be seen that funding this gap has been a difficult issue. But Glasgow has now said it wants this to end. The city has been at the forefront on the equal pay battle for a long time, going back to Strathclyde Regional Council v Wallace in 1998, and more recently Rainey v Greater Glasgow Health Board all playing their part in the evolution of case law on this sensitive matter.

We then entered an era of job evaluations to consider whether a school cleaner’s job was equal in status to a refuse collector’s tasks. It became a complex issue of trying to compare apples and pears, but now there is nowhere that employers can legitimately hide. These changes are part of a long term campaign by trade unions which will no doubt fuel membership. While they represent progress for some workers they also present real challenges for businesses and it’s the job of employment lawyers to help them navigate this.

Businesses need to pay heed to what is happening. Even if there is no job evaluation there is still the potential for an equal pay claim. And there is the potential of more no win, no fee claims.

The recent abolition of Employment Tribunal fees makes it far easier for those with a grievance to seek some resolution through the legal system. As the Glasgow decision shows, this remains a ticking time bomb for many enterprises. It could be very costly so businesses are well-advised to seek to address these issues now.

Alan Strain is head of Davidson Chalmers’ employment team. Davidson Chalmers are members of the United Employment Lawyers network, which represents independent legal firms across the UK.