The case, involving Hartlepool and East Durham NHS Trust, will put pressure on employers to ensure that women who undertake work of equal value to men should also have access to extra payments.
Officials at the GMB general union believe the settlement covering 200 domestic and catering staff could lead to some 50,000 health service workers receiving lump sums and wage rises costing the NHS up to pounds 40m.
But the case will have implications for the whole of British industry where jobs occupied predominantly by women are routinely excluded from bonus arrangements.
More than 200 women at the trust will receive compensation of up to pounds 3,000 and pay rises of up to 11 per cent as part of an out-of-court settlement.
The women established they were doing jobs of equal value to their predominantly male colleagues who work as porters, but that they were earning up to 11 per cent less because they were not paid bonuses.
Brian Strutton of the GMB said the case had national implications, and the union would be working to close pay gaps in other trusts. "Where we can, we will negotiate to secure equal pay," he said. "Where we cannot bargain for equality we will have no hesitation in pursuing other tribunal claims." Other cases are in the pipeline involving NHS trusts at Glasgow, Newcastle upon Tyne, Doncaster, Leeds and Airedale.
Derek Cattell, the GMB officer who negotiated the agreement, described it as historic. He said: "There is a forgotten Cinderella army of NHS workers who are largely ignored and have been consistently discriminated against by the management of the health service."
One of the beneficiaries of the agreement, Emily Waller, a chef at Hartlepool General Hospital, said: "We argued that our work is of equal value so we should get the [bonus] money as well. At first the management said no, but they realised they were in a no-win situation so they started to make offers. They were stunned when they realised how much it was going to cost them. Hopefully this will now open the floodgates for workers in other NHS trusts."
Mrs Waller, 56, who earns pounds 5 an hour, estimated that workers would receive pay rises of between pounds 9 and pounds 18 a week, which could add as much as pounds 400,000 to the trust's pay bill.
Ian Palfreeman, head of human resources at the Hartlepool and East Durham trust, said the deal, which comes into force today, would be self- financing through increased productivity and no money would be diverted from patient care. The trust was committed to equal opportunities and was happy to conclude the deal.Reuse content