Million threaten biggest equal pay battle in history

Three years after a parity agreement that will cost hundreds of millions of pounds, councils have still not paid their female staff
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The Independent Online

Local authorities face court action by nearly a million female workers in what would be the biggest equal-pay battle in legal history.

Local authorities face court action by nearly a million female workers in what would be the biggest equal-pay battle in legal history.

Only a tiny minority of councils have honoured a voluntary agreement to bring the wages of women in line with those of their male colleagues signed three years ago, according to a study by Industrial Relations Services (IRS). The agreement was signed to avert a potentially huge number of employment-tribunal cases.

However, it will cost authorities hundreds of millions of pounds to bring the pay of employees such as nursery nurses, where women predominate, in line with comparable jobs where men are in the majority.

Union officials said that women had been prepared to wait but their patience was running out. Many councils told researchers that they could not afford the necessary wage increases.

Out of 98 local authorities contacted by IRS - accounting for 700,000 employees covered by the deal - only a handful had taken any practical steps to address the issue. Councils will have to evaluate the relevant jobs and place them in a new pay and grading structure designed to yield equal pay for work of equal value.

Some councils said they had encountered difficulties in reaching local deals with trade unions because employees' representatives had refused to countenance any pay structure that involved levelling wages and conditions downwards. In the lowest grades, where women are on between £4 and £5 an hour, they could be entitled to pay rises of up to £2.

Jack Dromey, national organiser at the Transport and General Workers' Union, said: "Justice deferred is justice denied. Women will no longer wait for equal pay. If employers continue to drag their heels, litigation will inevitably replace negotiation."

A spokesman for the GMB general union said local authorities and the Government should address the issue as a matter of urgency. "We will not continue indefinitely to put up with what amounts to a wage apartheid between men and women in local government."

Individual councils told IRS they faced multi-million pound bills. The London Borough of Greenwich and Essex County Council may have to pay out £6m each; West Sussex County Council could have to pay £5m and Plymouth City Council and Stockport Metropolitan council £1m each.

David Shepherd, of IRS Employment Trends, said larger councils faced a choice: "Either they equalise upwards and fund the introduction of a new structure, often at a cost of millions, or they equalise downwards and attempt to introduce a new structure at nil or low cost, which means aggressively downgrading the pay and conditions of a significant section of the workforce." Cash-strapped councils were in an unenviable position, he said.

Some councils were the subject of equal-pay claims before the deal was signed in 1997. Three years earlier West Sussex County Council settled a case involving school welfare assistants out of court. It involved paying £2.3m in increased salaries over four years.