Equal pay for women curbed by ministers: Confidential letter warns of 'threat to jobs'

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT is undermining the spirit and intention of equal pay laws by blocking moves to simplify them, arguing that the reforms would cost jobs.

A confidential letter to the Equal Opportunities Commission warns of the implications for industry if it were easier for women to bring equal pay cases: 'The Government has a duty to ensure the law strikes a balance between improvements to the system of redress and the need to avoid undue burdens on employers which would threaten job opportunities.'

Industrial tribunal claims are supposedly simple, but since the 'equal pay for equal value' legislation was introduced 10 years ago there have been only 23 successful cases, many of which took more than six years to complete.

Ministers agreed to consider proposals to speed up the legal process, but the concessions were not enough for the EOC and last month it took its concerns to the European Commission, which is being urged to consider legal action.

One senior EOC source said: 'Basically the Government is saying that it will obey European articles (dealing with equality) provided they are not a burden on employers. Clearly there is a price to pay for equality, but it is a fundamental right.'

Ministers have admitted that the legislation is complex and that there have been delays, but have promised little action, the commission says. The commission is convinced that the Government will act only if made to do so.

Most crucially from the EOC's point of view, ministers have rejected an argument that claimants should be able to take 'class actions' so that hundreds of cases could be dealt with at once. Industrial tribunals can rule only on individual cases.

The Department of Employment said ministers had had talks with the EOC about how to speed up procedures and were disappointed at the complaint to the European Commission.

The department said: 'The Government certainly maintains on the basis of legal advice that existing equal pay procedures are fully consistent with its European Community obligations.'

In one case that went on for seven years before it was settled in March, five women shared pounds 15,000 in back pay after winning a legal battle with Quicks Group, a Manchester-based motor dealer. Women were being paid between pounds 1.65 and pounds 2.10 per hour for work which was said to be of equal value to that of men who were earning up to pounds 3.10. Only one of the women still worked for the company by the time the case was settled.

Another case lasting eight years was settled in February when five women won their discrimination claim against Freemans, the mail order company. The women, who were 'warehouse operatives' claimed their work was of equal value to a male 'checker warehouse operative'. An independent expert said in evidence that the difference between the jobs was not 'one which in the real world can be regarded as a material difference'.

John Monks, TUC general secretary, said that women earned only 75 per cent of male earnings after more than 20 years of equality legislation. 'The Government should make it a priority to rectify this situation.'

Kamlesh Bahl, EOC chairwoman, said: 'Our appeal to Europe is now an essential step in restoring credibility to the UK's equal pay laws and ensuring that women and men have genuine access to justice.'

The equal pay dispute follows the EOC's decision last month to support women who take legal action over new maternity rules, coming into force in a year, which mean women may be dismissed for trying to take more than the statutory 14 weeks' maternity leave. The commission expects a flood of claims. Ms Bahl has written to David Hunt, Secretary of State for Employment, saying ministers fail to recognise 'the reality of women's lives'.