Dinner ladies put pay equality on the menu

Tens of thousands of women could win the right to higher pay as the result of a landmark legal case being pursued by a group of Sheffield dinner ladies. Five judges at the Supreme Court will decide next month whether Sheffield City Council discriminated against dinner ladies and female care workers by excluding them from a bonus system available to male gardeners and street cleaners.

This will be the first time the country's highest court looks at the issue of equal pay, an area of law which is complicated by several contradictory legal precedents.

The case will be closely followed by cash-strapped health trusts and local authorities across the country, where some specialised jobs have traditionally been filled almost exclusively by a single gender.

The trade union Unison is supporting the Sheffield employees, and says it has around 40,000 equal pay cases which could be affected by the ruling.

The case started at an employment tribunal and hinges on the fact that men working as street cleaners and gardeners received bonus payments worth 33.5 per cent and 38 per cent more than women working in jobs that the council agreed were comparable.

The council argued that the bonuses had nothing to do with gender but were paid to boost productivity. Lawyers for the council claimed that the predominantly female jobs could not be measured or rewarded in a similar way and therefore the differences in pay did not need to be objectively justified.

But last year the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the women and said that the bonus system was discriminatory. The Appeal Court judges ruled that the case should be sent back to an employment tribunal, where the council would have to justify the bonus scheme.

Sheffield City Council, which must find savings of £220m over the next four years, is thought be facing compensation payments of £20m if the Court of Appeal ruling is not overturned.

Women still earn, on average, 18 per cent less than men, according to the Fawcett Society.

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