TUC drive to tackle sexism by employers

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of discrimination specialists are to be sent into the workplace as part of a union drive to stamp out sexist practices by employers.

Unions hope to train 500 officials to check that employers are complying with equal pay legislation. Training courses will start next month to teach union representatives how to analyse overtime rates, job descriptions and other working practices to ensure that hidden discrimination is stamped out. They hope representatives will be able to do audits by the end of August.

The Trades Union Congress, which launched the initiative yesterday, is hoping to persuade employers to audit their pay and employment practice. It warned that unscrupulous companies would risk being taken to industrial tribunals if they did not comply.

Union leaders are concerned that women still earn a fraction of the wages paid to men, more than 30 years after legislation outlawing discrimination became law. Women make up 47 per cent of the workforce, yet the latest figures show that those in full-time jobs earn only 82 pence for each pound paid to men in similar jobs. Women working part-time earn 61 per cent of the average male wage.

In the 10 most popular occupations among women, the pay gap is much wider, with females earning only 78 per cent of the average wages for men, the TUC said. Women's employment is concentrated in occupations such as sales assistants, checkout operators, clerks, secretaries, teaching, catering and health.

The gender pay gap is largest in the South-west and smallest in London and Wales, according to TUC research.

John Monks, the TUC general secretary, said: "The long campaign for equal pay has made progress down the years, but we still have more to do. The efforts of these reps is going to make a real difference to individual women's pay, and their collective efforts are going to make a real difference to tackling discrimination."

The TUC backed the Equal Opportunities Commission's Independent Equal Pay Taskforce, which recommended statutory pay reviews earlier this year. But union leaders have decided to press ahead with voluntary reviews in the hope of persuading employers to comply.

The commission has set a target for 50 per cent of Britain's 4,000 biggest employers, each employing more than 500 staff, to hold a pay review by the end of 2003.

In August, a woman camera operator at Grampian Television was awarded a £5,000 salary rise after the commission took up her claim for unequal pay.

Launching the targets earlier this month, Julie Mellor, the commission's chairwoman, said the pay gap would not be eliminated until all employers routinely checked they were paying women fairly.

A commission spokeswoman said many employers might be guilty of unwitting discrimination. "Employers are generally opposed to paying women a different rate from men, and say discrimination is a bad thing. But there is no facility for firms to collect data, so they are not aware that they may be discriminating," she said.