Insight: How Glasgow is a city torn apart by the equal pay debacle

Glasgow women's fight for justice has sparked a civil war in the council which could prolong their agony and jeopardise services, finds Dani Garavelli
Glasgow City Council workers dress as suffragettes to march for equal pay. Picture: Robert PerryGlasgow City Council workers dress as suffragettes to march for equal pay. Picture: Robert Perry
Glasgow City Council workers dress as suffragettes to march for equal pay. Picture: Robert Perry

Mother and daughter Nancy and Amanda Green, both Glasgow City Council home carers, are in the living room of their Drumchapel house. Amanda, 26, has not been working; she is glam and refreshed. Nancy, 53, has just come in after a gruelling shift tending to some of the city’s most vulnerable people. It’s demanding work involving hoists, colostomy bags and checking on medication. Her hair is scraped back off her head and she looks shattered.

They have kept the television on as we talk. The volume is turned down, but it is clear what news story is being covered. It’s the centenary of the first British women getting the vote and black and white images of suffragettes are flitting across the screen.

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The significance of this is lost on no-one; because 100 years on from that pioneering legislation – and more than 40 years after the Sex Discrimination Act – Nancy and Amanda are among more than 14,000 Glasgow City Council workers involved in a bitter and protracted battle for equal pay. And what has happened to them is nothing short of a scandal.

Isobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John DevlinIsobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John Devlin
Isobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John Devlin
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Women council workers march in Glasgow for equal pay

Ever since the local authority introduced its Workforce Pay and Benefits Review scheme (WPBR) to eradicate gender inequalities in 2007, female workers have been insisting it too is discriminatory. They claim the way WPBR is structured means people in female-dominated roles are being paid up to £3 an hour less than people in male-dominated roles.

Last month, after a succession of judgments went against it, the council finally agreed to stop fighting the women through the courts and attempt to reach a negotiated settlement; but the atmosphere is still febrile and there are many issues to resolve before any of them can hope to receive a penny of the money they are owed.

Of course, the women at Glasgow City Council are far from alone. Everywhere just now it seems, female employees are taking a stand. Last week, it was revealed Tesco faced a potential £4 billion bill as 200,000 checkout workers sought parity with warehouse workers. Those in Hollywood and the BBC, with high profiles and higher salaries, tend to attract the most publicity, but it is the those in the lowest paid jobs whose lives have been most severely affected.

Isobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John DevlinIsobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John Devlin
Isobel O'Brien in George Square. Picture: John Devlin

Let’s start with Nancy. For years, when Amanda and her older sister, Samantha, were young, she worked more than 70 hours a week while her own mother helped out with the child care. At 26, Amanda is still living with her parents while trying to scrape together enough money to pay a deposit on her own home.

Then there is Ingrid Bain who, like many of the women, has two job contracts. She gets up at 4am to do her first shift cleaning a primary, then returns at lunchtime to dish out school dinners. When her children Hailey, 22, and Gary, 15, were young, their holidays consisted of a few days at a caravan in Pease Bay, near Dunbar. Hailey was a good runner, and Bain would have liked to have put her into Giffnock North Athletic Club. “But we could never have afforded that,” she says.

Still, Nancy Green and Ingrid Bain are lucky; their incomes were boosted by their husbands’. Isabel O’Brien, a home carer and single parent of two, had only her own wages to rely on. Today, her 24- year-old son, who works in a call centre, pays dig money, which helps, but when he was briefly unemployed, she ended up at a food bank.

“I was really embarrassed to be there,” says O’Brien. “But I was also angry that I could work as hard as I do and still not be able to put food on the table.”

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What unites claimants across the social spectrum – the BBC presenters and the schools cleaners – is that they are made to feel responsible for holding their employers to account for inequality.

Just as former BBC China editor Carrie Gracie was blamed by some for the cut in her male colleagues’ pay, so the council workers have been guilt-tripped over the impact of a payout of up to £500 million on council tax and services. Using this defence, successive Labour administrations failed to address the problem and spent more than £2.5m opposing the claims through employment tribunals and the Court of Session.

During that time, hundreds of the women have passed away; recent losses include dinner lady Isobel Pickles, 63, who died last week after being sent home from work with a chest infection. “Isobel was going to use the money to leave her job and spend time more with her family,” says Bain, who knew her through Unison. “Now, that chance has gone.”

In May 2017, the SNP took control of Glasgow City Council. The party fought the elections with a commitment to sort out this injustice, and new leader Susan Aitken, an “unashamed feminist”, seems sincere about living up to her pledge.

“I could not have presided over the continued unequal treatment of women, knowing in my heart and my head it was happening, seeing the evidence in front of me: that this council undervalues not just women, but the lowest paid women, doing vital jobs,” she says.

“These are the women who are washing and feeding our elderly grandparents and parents, they’re clearing up our weans’ sick. 
It’s hard physical work. It has been treated as lesser value for the same reasons women’s work has always been treated as lesser value. And previous leaders and administrations of Glasgow City Council have chosen not to do enough to redress it.”

Aitken must know there is a risk this issue will consume the SNP’s first term in power, and put paid to a second one, but she believes securing equal pay would be a legacy worth having. However,there are many obstacles in her way, not least a resistance from veteran council officers, who – having defended the system for so long – are still struggling with the idea of conceding defeat.

And then there’s the challenge of finding the money at a time of austerity and of devising a new, improved pay and grading scheme which is surely essential if future equal pay claims are to be avoided.

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The stakes are high, no doubt about it: any new pay and grading scheme would involve winners and losers, creating a likelihood of industrial action. “There will be a bin strike in 2019. I don’t know this, but I know it,” says one union insider.

By the time this feature is published, some of the women will have donned suffragette sashes and marched through the city. They welcome Aitken’s commitment, and were buoyed by the council’s decision not to go to all the way to the Supreme Court. Still, with so many previous disappointments, they are not holding their breath. They want to see deeds not words.

For as long as women have been working , jobs done predominantly by them, such as cleaning, clerical, catering, cashiering and caring, have been less valued, and therefore less well-paid, than jobs done predominantly by men.

Famously, in 1968, a group of sewing machinists at the Ford plant in Dagenham went on strike to prove this point. They argued their work required the same amount of skill as the work carried out by cutters and paint spray operators and demanded to be paid the same.

As a result of this and other walk-outs, the then Labour government brought in the Equal Pay Act (1970). But the existence of the Act did not prevent discrimination. Employers breached the spirit, and often the letter, of the law, finding innovative ways – such as bonuses and overtime payments – to boost men’s pay. Often, they were egged on by the unions, which were themselves male-dominated and which saw male manual workers as the priority.

In the early years of its existence, the Act was sparsely used: there were just 2,000-odd claims between 1975 and 1995. Even landmark cases – such as that of Cammell Laird cook Julie Hayward, which established the “equal value” principle – didn’t have the anticipated trickle-down effect.

In 1995, however, a Newcastle lawyer called Stefan Cross arrived on the scene. Then working for trade union law firm Thompsons, he won a £70m payout for 1,500 dinner ladies in Cleveland. Two years later, when Labour swept into power, a national single status agreement was drawn up, which gave local authorities ten years to introduce fairer grading structures. In so doing, they exposed the scale of the existing discrimination and set the stage for tens of thousands of claims at councils across the UK.

By now, Cross had struck out on his own; he pioneered the no-win, no-fee model of representation and began actively pursuing clients (women who – until he approached them – had no idea they were being discriminated against). Where councils and the trade unions tended to settle equal pay claims quickly, Cross kept pushing, forcing local authorities to pay the women what they were owed.

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In Glasgow, for example, women involved in the pre-2007 pay claims recall how the GMB union and the council pressurised them into accepting low settlements by offering them cheques for a few thousand pounds just before Christmas so long as they signed quickly. The women represented by Cross had to wait longer, but received far greater sums.

Not only did Cross take on the councils, he sued the unions for failing to properly represent their female members, forcing them to up their game. In so doing, he made himself hugely unpopular. Many still regard him as an ambulance-chaser who has got rich off the back of driving councils to the brink.

There is no denying Cross – who has something of the street-fighter about him – has made money along the way. It is also true that, unlike the unions, he doesn’t have to consider the potential consequences of large pay-outs on jobs or future relations.

To the women, however, he is a hero, which explains why – though Unison and the GMB are involved in Glasgow’s current equal pay dispute – Cross, who is based in London, but runs Action 4 Equality Scotland – still has 80 per cent of the current claimants. “I will have to give him 10 per cent of the payout, but he deserves it,” one woman tells me. “He stuck with us when the unions couldn’t be bothered.”

The current Glasgow dispute relates to the pay and grading system the council introduced in 2007 to rid the system of gender bias. For reasons best known to itself (but possibly to do with cost), it rejected the “red book” scheme implemented by the other 31 Scottish authorities, opting instead for a bespoke system.

The new system is complicated, but the problems with it are two-fold. The first is that, at the behest of the unions, the council built in a three-year payment protection for those men who lost out on bonuses, without extending it to women, thus perpetuating the gender differential. In May last year, just after the SNP took control, the Court of Session ruled this payment protection had been discriminatory and the council accepted its judgment.

The second area of contention is the design of the scheme itself. The point of the job evaluation exercise was to create transparency, so any worker could look across the council and compare their wage with that of other roles. However, this is difficult to do in Glasgow, because – alone among Scottish councils – it introduced the concept of core and non-core pay.

Work done in relation to core pay is assessed using identifiable job evaluation techniques, even though the scores awarded to some jobs have been disputed. But non-core pay is more difficult to understand because people are being rewarded for the “context” rather than the content of their work.

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For non-core pay, Glasgow workers are awarded extra points (and extra points mean extra pay) for specific working conditions, many of which appear to be relevant only to jobs done predominantly by men.

For example, extra points are given to those with full-time contracts. Women are more likely than men to have part-time contracts (though those with two part-time contracts may still work more hours).

Cross says the disparity was compounded by the creation of arms-length external organisations (ALEOs), such as Cordia (predominantly female workers) and City Building (predominantly male workers). However, an Employment Appeal Tribunal later ruled the ALEOs were all still part of the Glasgow City Council family for the purposes of equal pay.

WPBR has been attracting claims ever since it was introduced. Cross now has 10,900, Unison 2,100 and the GMB 2,000, with more coming in every day. But while all political parties have signed up to achieving a negotiated settlement, the internal tensions are far from resolved. In particular, the leadership is understood to be furious that no money was ever put aside in case of a defeat, nor any work done to prepare for possible negotiations.

Aitken appears to accept WPBR is dead in the water; she is resigned to the creation of a new pay and grading system, preferably in conjunction with the negotiated settlements and in agreement with the unions. She is also understood to be pressing for an early settlement on the payment protection element of the claims and to believe the WPBR element could be dealt with on a sector-by-sector basis and resolved within 18 months.

Some long-standing councillors and council officers, however, remain reluctant to embrace a course of action that effectively concedes their past decisions were misguided. They say that, while the Court of Session found there were grounds to suspect the WPBR could not be relied upon in relation to the Equal Pay Act, it did not rule it was discriminatory, and are dragging their heels on a commitment to a new pay and grading scheme.

There are also important decisions to be made on where the money for the settlements will come from. Some sources still appear to be peddling the line that it will be devastating for jobs and services. In a recent newspaper article, a former official was quoted as saying: “We all want women to get equal pay, but we also want children to be educated, we want secure jobs, our sick and vulnerable to be looked after and for potholes to be filled. Putting these things at risk is not progressive, it is an abdication of responsibility.”

Yet Aitken is understood to believe there are other ways the cash can be raised: options include a loan from the Scottish or UK government or securitising assets such as the SEC.

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The continuing gulf between the leadership and council officers means negotiations are proceeding at a glacial pace. “We get the impression we are dealing with two warring camps: the political leadership have clearly crossed the Rubicon, but the officers haven’t bought into this process at all,” says Cross.

Aitken appears to be trying to bridge the gap; but Cross believes that unless the council gets its act together soon, the claimants could find themselves back at tribunals. “That would take five years and double the cost,” he says.

In a room at Unison Glasgow branch office, a dozen or so women are tying suffragette ribbons to boater hats and are writing Equal Pay Or We Walk Away on placards ready for the march.

After the council meeting last month, they were buzzing, optimistic that at last their long fight for equality might be coming to an end.

They had allowed themselves to dream about the things they might buy: a car to replace the one that won’t start; or a foreign holiday with the family to make up for all the time they missed out on when they were young.

Now, rattled by rumours of stalled negotiations, their heads have dropped; some say industrial action – which had been put on hold – is back on the cards.

When all this is over – if it is ever over – big questions will have to be asked. How could the council have believed this convoluted scheme – with payment protection for the men built in – would eradicate inequality and increase transparency? And why weren’t previous administrations willing to challenge officers’ advice on fighting the claims?

In the meantime, you have to wonder if the culture has really changed. Last week, refuse collectors voted for industrial action in support of 123 temporary cleansing workers whose contracts have not been renewed (although there are understood to be many female workers on temporary contracts across the council). What is that other than the exercising of male muscle?

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The introduction of a new pay and grading system will probably bring more industrial strife, but as the women point out, the council’s problems are of its own making. For more than a decade it has had their labour on the cheap and trying to hold them responsible is the worst kind of victim-blaming.

“If you think about the consequences it’s frightening – of course it is – just like the situation we have faced year upon year with the council cuts,” says Unison regional organiser Jennifer McCarey. “But a lot of the impact of those cuts has been absorbed by the depreciation of the female workers’ pay and fighting it and imposing a pay and grading system which didn’t work.

“The responsibility for this lies with the politicians who took the decisions and the structures of government local and national that allowed the council to conduct itself in that manner.”

McCarey says the reason she feels so strongly is that many of the women are the linchpins of benighted communities. “You know what Glasgow is like, you know how complicated its problems are,” she says. “The people who keep it going are the support for learning workers, the home carers, the people who provide school dinners and the cleaners. Their commitment to the vulnerable people they work with, the wages they earn and the families they support and the fact they are around communities to pick up the pieces, is what keeps this troubled city ticking over.

“For them to be given the blame about the costs involved in delivering equal pay – the money they are owed, the pay they work for – I am not willing to accept that.”

For the female workers, there is a broader frustration too; that 100 years after women got the vote, they are still having to fight for recognition. “I can’t believe that here we are celebrating the suffragettes and we still don’t have equality,” says one of the women. “But whatever happens, I will keep on fighting. If it takes that long, I will die fighting.”