Councils should pay men's wages to women workers

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The Independent Online

There are always sound economic arguments for not doing what is right. Local councils will doubtless produce a number to explain away the fact that very few of them have honoured a deal, signed three years ago, to bring the wages of low-paid female workers into line with those of their male counterparts. It's difficult, you see. It would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Unless, of course, instead of increasing women's wages to the levels paid to men, they are allowed to reduce the pay of the men to women's levels.

There are always sound economic arguments for not doing what is right. Local councils will doubtless produce a number to explain away the fact that very few of them have honoured a deal, signed three years ago, to bring the wages of low-paid female workers into line with those of their male counterparts. It's difficult, you see. It would cost hundreds of millions of pounds. Unless, of course, instead of increasing women's wages to the levels paid to men, they are allowed to reduce the pay of the men to women's levels.

It is easy to think that the battles of feminism were won long ago. In practice, its achievements were in large measure confined to the middle classes. How else do we explain the fact that most of the stories we read about gender injustice seem to revolve around female City workers going to tribunals to protest that they have received only a five-figure bonus instead of the six-figure one handed out to their male colleagues? Or reports on how, in schools, girls are now outperforming boys - figures that paper over some deep divides in terms of economic and social exclusion?

Feminism, it is now a commonplace to say, has been essentially a bourgeois phenomenon. In reality, things are a little more complex. Professional women are only too aware that in many circles sexism has become merely a more subtle beast; any survey of promotional opportunities or the practical consequences of maternity leave will show that. By contrast, there has been much growth in the social self-confidence of many women from what were once called the working classes.

But when it comes to the hard facts of economic life, there is no doubting that working-class women are still systematically disadvantaged. Many women working on the lowest grades for local councils, earning between £4 and £5 an hour, are paid as much as a third less than men in similar jobs. This is not a discrepancy that, 30 years after the introduction of the Equal Pay Act, should be tolerated, especially in the public sector, where society has a direct responsibility as the employer.

It is up to the Government to press local authorities to take steps to rectify this unsatisfactory situation, and not at the expense of male staff who are some of the most poorly paid members of society. If remedial action is not taken, women workers will continue to take local authorities to court on the matter. They will win; but further legal action should not be necessary. This is a question of equity. Justice continually deferred is justice denied.

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