The equal pay cases are still coming thick and fast. In the last couple of weeks, Sunderland and Cumbria councils have found themselves facing huge bills to cover the successful legal claims brought by female workers. A case is due to be heard against Falkirk council soon.
A major problem for employers who lose equal pay cases is that the law requires them to harmonise pay immediately. Actually, it’s even worse than that. They have to harmonise pay six years ago by giving back-pay to the women who have won their cases.
Of course, the alternative to bringing one group’s pay up to the level of the other would be to cut the wages of the higher-paid group, thus harmonising the pay downwards.
When this issue first made headlines a couple of years ago, I ridiculed the suggestion that councils might cut pay to bring about equality, rather than throwing more money at the problem and pushing up taxes and borrowing in the process. I was at least partially right. Local councils have had to borrow extra money and seek bailouts from central government to meet the costs.
But now, it seems, as there is less cash in the public sector pot to draw on, some councils are cutting wages in response to equal pay claims. Aberdeen City Council has downgraded workers in predominantly male roles and Rochdale is cutting the pay of a quarter of its employees, to comply with equal pay legislation. Unions in Glasgow are calling for strike action over a similar proposal by the city council there.
Unison, the public sector union, predicts more of the same as cash strapped councils try to comply with the law while avoiding massive payouts. A spokesman told the Guardian:
We estimate that 56% of councils have undertaken and implemented pay reviews in response. It has been very contentious – there are going to be more disputes to come.
It’s a bitter irony that legislation designed to bring low paid female workers up to the same pay levels as their male colleagues is now leading to pay cuts, for both men and women, throughout the local government sector.
So it looks as if I am going to have to eat my words. I was wrong. Some councils have started cutting pay and it looks as though more will follow.
Who’d have thought it, eh? The next thing you know, those pigs really will be flying over City Hall.