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Women taste victory in battle to earn the same as men

Joyce Pickering was celebrating a landmark legal victory yesterday after she and her 27 fellow female council workers won a pounds 400,000 settlement in an equal pay and sex discrimination case against Durham City Council.

Under the agreement the women, all care workers for the elderly, will receive a lump sum of between pounds 10,000 and pounds 15,000 in back-dated pay, compensation and rent allowances, and a 35 per cent increase in their wages, to bring them into line with male colleagues.

Ms Pickering, a warden at one of Durham's sheltered housing complexes, said: "We no longer feel undervalued and underpaid after going for years without being properly recognised for what we do. Today has been a great achievement."

The fight, begun two years ago, involved the women's assertion that wages for men and women should be identical. They also demanded a review of working hours, which had seen many working round the clock.

Previously, the women had operated under a provincial agreement which they and their union, the GMB, signed in 1988 but withdrew from when their action began. However yesterday's decision looks likely to throw the council's finances into chaos.

Brian Spears, Director of Housing and Health for Durham City Council, said: "The council never said the claim was totally unreasonable. The implication from the council point of view is how to pay for the settlement. All along we have been pointing out our inability to find this money."

But GMB national secretary, Mick Graham, called upon employers to take heed of the result. "Inability to pay is no defence in law," he said. "All similar cases we have run show very clearly that women have been discriminated against. Their work has been of equal value but they have been paid less."

Mr Graham explained that the cost of ensuring wage parity throughout the UK job market had been estimated at pounds 1,000m, but suggested that the trend towards equal pay for both sexes was unremitting.